By Dharisha Bastians –
Crowned emperor of the new Commonwealth and with a war crimes inquiry in the offing next March, at home President Mahinda Rajapaksa is looking more invincible than ever
There’s a new emperor in town
The posters and hoardings to celebrate President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ascension to the Chair of the Commonwealth, a grouping mostly made up of territories of the former British Empire, must have been ready weeks in advance. By happy coincidence, the President was also celebrating his 68th birthday and his eighth year in office this week.
Locally, the Commonwealth summit, dogged by controversy over Sri Lanka’s human rights record and plagued by eleventh-hour boycotts and embarrassing no-shows, had been President Rajapaksa’s crowning moment. The posters all over the capital summed it up: Vanquisher of terrorism, now conquering the world.
A fawning local media has ensured the domestic success of the summit. With the ruling regime determined to play the showpiece meeting off as a resounding success, excessive negativity on the pages of newsprint and on air were deemed unwise.
Thus, CHOGM unfolded in Wonderland, an unwalled city of manicured islands and tree-lined streets.
CHOGM in Wonderland
In Wonderland, buses full of families of the disappeared travelling to the capital from the former conflict zone were not turned back by the military. State-sponsored demonstrations, ably abetted by the Bodu Bala Sena brigade of monks, did not shut down a legitimate human rights festival at the Opposition headquarters in the suburbs of the capital.
In the parallel CHOGM universe, British broadcast journalists from Channel 4, the controversial crew responsible for two documentaries alleging major crimes in the final phase of Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE, were thieving scum, defrauding a poor van driver. According to the Government’s CHOGM Spokesperson Anuradha Herath, the demonstration to prevent the Channel 4 crew travelling to the north was a shining illustration of Sri Lankan democracy at work.
In the final chapter of the Channel 4 saga in Colombo, six burly Immigration officials did not visit the crew at their hotel at dawn and inform them their freedom of movement was restricted between the hotel and the summit venue, prompting the crew to make an unscheduled exit from Sri Lanka. In fact, the Wonderland narrative would have it, the British journalists fled in fear of having to make their case during a live TV debate against a senior criminal lawyer and a Sri Lankan journalist.
Playing into the farce, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to the UK, Dr. Chris Nonis dismissed the Channel 4 documentaries as being no more significant than George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’ movie franchise. What the eloquent envoy failed to explain was why his Government was taking ‘Star Wars’ and its makers quite so seriously and allowing their victimisation in Colombo to become the dominant narrative of the Commonwealth summit.
Fortunately, one needs never over-think things in Wonderland, where repression is democracy and ignorance, to borrow from Orwell’s prophetic 1984, is truth.
But outside the CHOGM bubble, things were looking distinctly less rosy. The hoards of international press teams in Colombo to report on the summit more than compensated for the reporting deficiencies within the country. Every report leaving Sri Lankan shores to be aired globally across cable news networks and on the internet were crushingly critical of the summit hosts.
An unmitigated Public Relations disaster, some pundits have called the week-long summit, and the overwhelmingly negative international reportage had sections of the Government wondering how senior officials and advisors of the ruling administration had failed to foretell the extent of the impending crisis.
By the time President Rajapaksa addressed his second CHOGM press briefing, the strain was beginning to show. The pre-summit briefing on Thursday (14) had been one of good cheer, with a beaming President seated beside a somewhat stiff Commonwealth Secretary General. The next day’s briefing was mysteriously cancelled, prompting accusations by the British press, including Channel 4 that the Sri Lankan President was trying to avoid the foreign media. Government officials said the President was chairing an important CHOGM session and could not be drawn away during crucial discussions.
But it was a distinctly less-happy President who sat on the dais at Saturday’s press briefing at the BMICH. Aides scurrying back and forth between the President at the head table and Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga to scribble notes that were then rushed back to the dais were a dead giveaway about the state of nerves in the Government camp.
Once dubbed the ‘Cabinet Reporter’ in President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Government because of his liaisons with local media personnel, President Rajapaksa has preferred his press encounters to be ‘managed’ since he was made the SLFP presidential nominee in 2005. His aides have ensured interviews with the President have been restricted to Sri Lanka’s State-controlled media or pre-arranged with the international press. A free-for-all of the CHOGM media briefing variety was unprecedented and it was making senior officials justifiably jittery.
Senior Commonwealth Secretariat officials were heard to comment among themselves at the CHOGM Media Centre that senior Government officials were increasingly reluctant to place President Rajapaksa before the press again and again. The officials remarked that it was odd how the Head of State himself did not appear unwilling to face the media despite the concerns of those around him. In the end, at all three briefings President Rajapaksa performed, for the most part flawlessly, unfazed by the toughest questions, even if his answers proved somewhat repetitive.
The David Cameron aspect of CHOGM proved harder for the regime to navigate. The British Prime Minister was under severe pressure at home to justify his attendance at the Colombo summit, given Sri Lanka’s deteriorating human rights situation and the erosion of democratic values in the country.
Digging in their heels
When Prime Minister Cameron touched down at the Bandaranaike International Airport on Thursday, therefore, with his own media entourage in tow, he had already made it clear he was not in Sri Lanka to win any friends.
Brushing past the VVIP guest book at the airport and making only a brief appearance at the CHOGM opening, Cameron stole the Government’s thunder when he made a flying visit to the Northern Province to “shine a light” on issues on the ground there four years after the war. Cameron’s show-stopper became the CHOGM story for the world’s media. His tour had created the perfect platform for northern Tamils to air their grievances about the Government’s policies as the world focused on Sri Lanka’s former battle zone.
A stormy bilateral meeting between the British PM and President Rajapaksa was to follow. Cameron raised the issue of an inquiry into alleged crimes of war as the Government executed the final push to defeat the LTTE in May 2009. President Rajapaksa, in a classic tit-for-tat, raked up the stalled Chilcott inquiry, a British public investigation into the country’s involvement in the Iraq War.
Both leaders had effectively dug in their heels. And in their respective countries, both President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Cameron had become heroes overnight.
At a fiery press briefing the next day (16), Cameron threw down the gauntlet and delivered the message it was clear he had come to Sri Lanka to give. Britain had just secured membership in the UN Human Rights Council, the main battleground of Sri Lanka’s greatest post-war international challenges. The Prime Minister assured the Government that if a credible domestic probe into alleged violations during the war’s final phase was not forthcoming, Sri Lanka would face a full-blown international war crimes inquiry in March 2014. His Government, Cameron said, would push for the investigation.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa retorted the same day that ‘people in glass houses should not throw stones’ – a clear reference to the British Prime Minister and possibly the Chilcott inquiry, although he refused to elaborate. The State-controlled press and other local media have echoed the sentiment, believing the Prime Minister’s strong message to be imperialist in tone and needlessly insulting of his host.
Outwardly, the Sri Lankan Government is all bluster and bravado. But behind closed doors, sources say, the panic is setting in. For all the victory the regime is playing CHOGM out to be, the summit had brought some nasty home truths to the fore.
After the Government boasted there would be more world leaders present at the meeting than there were in Perth in 2011, in fact CHOGM 2013 had seen the lowest turnout of Heads of Government at a Commonwealth summit in several decades. The Commonwealth Secretariat was particularly peeved by the last minute drop-outs since logistical arrangements had been put in place in vain.
When the roll call of Commonwealth leaders was taken on 15 November, only 27 heads of government took the stage at the Nelum Pokuna auditorium for the CHOGM opening ceremony. At last count, the Government was expecting at least 40 heads of government.
That someone had pulled a coup was clear, even if the protagonist remains in doubt.
Conventional wisdom in Government ranks was that the snubs had been orchestrated by New Delhi, whose own Prime Minister staged a tacit boycott and whose influence with Mauritius, at least, is in little doubt. Other analysts point to another powerful Western nation, with no direct links to the Commonwealth but enough muscle to discourage overwhelming attendance at the Colombo CHOGM.
For Kamalesh Sharma, the Head of the Commonwealth and firm friend of Sri Lanka, the turnout was a stinging indictment against his role in ensuring the Colombo summit went ahead as scheduled. Most importantly perhaps, Cameron’s March ultimatum had brought a ruling administration caught up in the fantasy and promise of CHOGM crashing back to earth about the monumental challenges it faces four months after the summit closes.
Nothing new in ultimatum
For all its sound and fury, the Cameron ultimatum was not news to the Sri Lankan Government – or at least the more initiated sections of it. Colombo has had March 2014 and the very real threat of an international war crimes inquiry hanging over its head since March 2013.
The writing was on the wall more clearly when UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay issued her report to the Council in September this year, pledging to call for an international probe if Sri Lanka did not address accountability issues about the final phase of its war against the LTTE by March 2014.
Pillay’s March 2014 deadline was in the offing since at least June this year, according to diplomatic sources. Support for the setting up of that inquiry is already being sought among the membership of the UNHRC, and the tabulation of the stumbling block nations – like Australia – has already begun.
The British Prime Minister was essentially riding on the coat-tails of these initiatives. But Cameron’s decision to issue the deadline in unmistakable terms has allowed his Government ownership of the international campaign aimed at holding Colombo to account.
The international community, led by the Western lobby the Sri Lankan Government has grown increasingly mistrustful of, is making it loud and clear that four years of military inquiries that have largely absolved Government troops of blame and foot-dragging on key investigations into alleged executions during the war will not meet the international benchmarks of a ‘credible’ investigation.
After strutting upon the global stage for an all-too-brief moment, President Rajapaksa’s administration must now face a dismal reality. Its international fortunes look bleak and it will take diplomacy of high calibre or genuine progress to dial down the pressure. The proposition made by South African President Jacob Zuma, for his country’s assistance to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for Sri Lanka, is being seriously contemplated as one way out of the UNHRC quagmire.
The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was loosely based on the South African TRC model to deal with its Apartheid era atrocities. But a proper TRC would bring victims and perpetrators together to deliver restorative rather than punitive justice and has long been prescribed as a panacea for the complex post-war issues facing Sri Lanka.
The other contemplation is more pedestrian and less focused on post-conflict healing. Government and Opposition circles are buzzing with speculation about a presidential poll as early as March next year. If international calculations were to be weighed in, the month of March is not being bandied about randomly.
A question has already been referred to the Supreme Court for interpretation about how soon the President can seek election for a third term, since the 18th Amendment that removed presidential term limits does not explicitly stipulate how early another term can be sought. The 1978 Constitution provides that a President may seek a second term in office after he completes the fourth year of his first term. Presidential polls were last held in January 2010, but the President assumed his second term in office only later that year – in November. The Supreme Court interpretation, once delivered, will be key to understanding the regime’s thinking on the likely date of the next presidential poll.
From the perspective of the ruling administration, there is no reason to postpone holding an election to reinforce President Rajapaksa’s mandate.
The summit was a success and the Rajapaksa regime can bask in its glory. Despite negative forecasts, the economy is holding firm. A pro-people Budget is likely to be unveiled today. Cynical city-dwellers are pacified by the pretty capital the accelerated beautification program for CHOGM has left behind. What’s more, even the more cosmopolitan sections of Sri Lankan society are bristling with indignation over David Cameron’s high-handedness during the summit.
Brow-beaten and tamed over the years, sections of the media danced admirably to the Piper’s tune during CHOGM. Any swing towards a war crimes inquiry in March 2014 at the UNHRC in Geneva will, with the assistance of the pliant media, strengthen the President’s position back home. The incumbent President can go into the polls battle crowned emperor of the Commonwealth and vanquisher of terrorism, pledging to save the motherland and her heroic troops from new international enemies.
He will be effectively, invincible.
Domestically therefore, his domain is peaceful. And as far as President Rajapaksa is concerned, the domestic is the only real calculation he ever makes.
Courtesy Daily FT
BBS Rep / November 21, 2013
There is a lot of truth in what you say. However I will reiterate that the President is here to stay. There is no viable alternative. He will be elected with a greater majority than the one before. CHOGM has strengthened his case. David Cameron’s outburst will eventually work in the Presidents favour. No one in Sri Lanka appreciates being bullied by a foreign leader, worse still if the leader is a representative of a former colonial master. The hiccups with Channel 4 were expected but did not turn out to be worse. The protest by the grieving women of Jaffna will also work in favour of the President. Flawed but still democracy in action. They were allowed to meet up with DC and the police acted with great restraint during the mobbing of DC’s motorcade.
The citizenry must brace up and be ready for another 6 years of Presidential rule by MR and Co. All what we can hope is in time, the rule of law will slowly be restored. Nothing else can be done but hope
Garusinghe / November 21, 2013
Therefore, accprding to BB Sales Rep another Idi Amin in the making and he hails him.
MaRa and Clan, BBS & JHU will not last long.
GOD / November 22, 2013
yesh definitely he ll win next election. I can see that even though you cant. but problem is “Will he able to win international ?”. Winning Sri Lanka is nothing but more international pressure to country.
First Sri Lankan should know Sri Lanka is small country and if Sri Lankan citizens want good future Sri Lankan should listen to them (international community) not because of their good but they are powerful.
if they (international community) need land and women I can’t even help you. Learn it from history and behave like a healthy.
but don’t be shy to criticize my followers behavior
There is no god but (Ba)Allah :)
BBS is almost similar to my followers thanks for working on be half of me while pretending like a non follower.
Gamiya / November 21, 2013
How naive and stupid can people be?
She plagiarises Western corporate media lines like “Commonwealth summit, dogged by controversy over Sri Lanka’s human rights record and plagued by eleventh-hour boycotts and embarrassing no-shows”, “An unmitigated Public Relations disaster” etc, wholesale, being ignorant of the fact that there was higher participation in Colombo CHOGM than the last one in Perth, Australia.
Sri Lanka’s democracy will never be strong with journalists and commentators of this calibre who seem to have trouble separating their elbow from their own posterior end.
Heaven help us!
padmakumara / November 21, 2013
Gamiya, the question is how naive are you?
“Only 24 countries participated at heads of government level at the Commonwealth summit which began in Colombo on Friday — the lowest heads-of-government count in recent decades. Among them were nine presidents and 15 prime ministers. A record number of heads of government participated at the CHOGM 1999 in Durban South Africa. The 1997 Scotland summit drew 42 heads of government. The Commonwealth summit in 2011 in Australia saw 36 heads of government, the Trinidad and Tobago summit in 2009 had 34 heads of government and the Uganda summit in 2007 had 36 while Malta in 2005 and Nigeria in 2003 had 38 each. At CHOGM 2013, five countries were represented by vice presidents while eleven countries were represented by foreign ministers. The remaining nations were represented by other ministers, high commissioners and senior officials.” Only 24 countries participated at heads of government level at the Commonwealth summit which began in Colombo on Friday — the lowest heads-of-government count in recent decades. Among them were nine presidents and 15 prime ministers.”
Palayang yako! / November 23, 2013
Yet another pseudonym for the same vicious, stupid rhetoric! You should go back to your tuition-masters who pay you instead of you paying them for a refresher course!
Namal Perera / November 21, 2013
The Country is ruled by Bribery & Corruption closely followed by intimidation, threat, assault, disappearances and murder. Probably the Jokers took it to grant that they could do the same at CHOGM. The Carnival is now over and the outcome is yet to see.
Safa / November 21, 2013
Of course Geneva too can be weathered by the Govt by simply ignoring what is said and playing the role of hero facing the imperialistic forces of the UN. What then?
An International Investigation will take a couple more years, enough time to make more hay while the sun shines. The most potent weapon with the International Community is the regime of punitive economic sanctions which has brought even oil rich Iran to its knees. Will it ultimately come to that?
justice / November 21, 2013
The supreme court will rule whatever MR desires,regarding the date of the presidential election – the court’s iterpretation will be final.
The Budget will be Military-friendly not people friendly.
A larger portion than ever of the budget will be for “defence”.
The government depends on the military & police to survive.
The report on the Weliweriya shootings has been ‘shelved’ under various pretexts – like those of more than ten previous “commissions”.
The Khuram Sheik case has gone into limbo – though Cameron had insisted on early trial.
All of MR’s political future depends on the UNHCR proceedings in March 2014,in view of Cameron’s ‘threat’.
Already repression is worse in the north and east, due to what happened during Cameron’s visit.
Thiru / November 21, 2013
To brush aside Sri Lanka’s past troubles and failures of the present, and look ahead. To do so, with nothing else, is morally indefensible.
Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/the-age-editorial/mr-abbott-falters-on-crucial-leadership-test-20131118-2xrd2.html#ixzz2lEq8S2bk
Spring Koha / November 21, 2013
Domestically, MR is king of the castle; internationally MR, the regime and Sri Lanka are pariahs. And, whilst the opposition is divided and asleep on the job, what better time to move in and secure another extended term. The show will go on……..and, hooray, Mervyn is out again with his hit single ‘Don’t Don’t stop the carnival’.
Thiru / November 21, 2013
“Its international fortunes look bleak and it will take diplomacy of high calibre or genuine progress to dial down the pressure”
Yes indeed: Call Dayan Jayatilake the invincible dynamic diplomat to clothe the most dynamic Sri Lankan leader & Emperor Rajapakse, and do the job in Geneva for the immoral regime.
Dev / November 21, 2013
I hope that you are being sarcastic !!! Dayan is a POLITICAL appointment, not a career diplomat.
The last mention of Dayan by MR was when he said Dayan was working for a NGO !!!!!
Darlin Silva / November 21, 2013
Holes have already developed in the non-existent clothes of the new emperor. Sincerely hope he will not end up as the infamous Emperor Bokossa of that African country.
Mahadana Muththa (Jnr) / November 22, 2013
“Sincerely hope he will not end up as the infamous Emperor Bokossa of that African country.”
Wickramasiri / November 21, 2013
A fine review of the status quo. For Mahinda Rajapaksa however, the times are becoming tougher due to his stubborn adherence to selfish, self-serving politics, his lack of true humanity, and his penchant to indulge in hocus pocus astrology, and mumbo jumbo worship. He reminds me of Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier, and like the latter he is crafting his own downfall. My advice to him is to become a Buddhist again and learn good and bad, right and wrong, how to be truly kind, caring and humble before his citizens.
Tasil Samarasinha / November 21, 2013
A very well written article,but Dharisha I am not in agreement with your conclusion that Mahinda is invincible.HE can be defeated and will be come the next prez. election.This is very possible if their can be a joint opposition candidate with a clear promise to abolish the executive presidency by a given date (I do not mean promises like the ones given by CBK)
Not politics but for the sake of our country I hope that candidate can be Ranil,for one thing he is honest to a fault and another is that he is the only politician today who is fully acceptable to all countries and can get their support without question.
Furthermore Ranil is the only politician who is accepted by all minorities.Forget the election in the north as when the push comes to the shove they will delver.
True Ranil is not popular with a majority of the sinhala population but the 25% popularity he has will be sufficient when combined with the minority vote. IN this context Permadasa will not stand a chance against
Omar / November 21, 2013
As long as the opposition parties are divided and as long as UNP keep scoring their own goals, Mahinda Rajapaksa will be in power without any efforts. All Mahinda got to do is to deliver few patriotics lines if or when the election is close.
The rest assured.
Yasodara Fukushima / November 21, 2013
Mr. Omar, I love to read your rare short comments to the point.
But still I dont like you for two reasons, A, You are not on our side and B, You are a Muslim, Yes?
Whoever do not support our king the emperor mahinda is a traitor for us. Also we hate Elite, Educated, Well Mannered Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims.
Hon Muralidaran, Karuna, KP and Ven Azver, Faiser Mustafa so on are good for us.
Please do comment often.
GOD / November 22, 2013
Thanks for informing him. but he is a jihad warrior of my child abusers tribal brigade.
There is no god but (Ba)Allah :)
Medalankara de Choppe / November 21, 2013
Premadasa as president is the Joke of the century. Do you think Ranasinghe’s son will get rid of the dacronian 1978 constitution and the 18th ammendment. Must go to a headshrinker
Emil van der Poorten / November 23, 2013
An interesting, objective and logical response to Ms. Bastian’s excellent piece. With regard to the latter, however, Ms. Bastian’s, unfortunately, appears to be yet another writer who fails to mention the fact that the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission approach was deliberately rejected by the Sri Lankan government and the LLRC set up instead. All mention of the TRC in the circumstances can only be interpreted as yet another attempt to buy time against what is increasingly apparent will be some form of external inquiry into what really happened at Nanthikadal.
dodo / November 21, 2013
Dharisha, sorry to say nothing new here – seems to me more important to talk about holding Sharma and Commonwealth accountable (as much as Rajapassa) and the ways and means to do so – locally and internationally..
No reference here to the miserable performance of the obedient opposition which stayed home on Rajapassa’s orders the week of CHOGM when they should have organized massive protests on the first day of the Circus on the streets of Colombo!
The fake patriotism of the dead left and the UNP right are sickening – particularly sleazy Ravi Karunanayak apologizing to BBS when they has in fact broken the law, trespased at Sirikotha! Rather than apologizing to the Saffron criminals, UNP should take them to court and have them put behind bars for disturbing the peace..
aratai / November 21, 2013
No one can bring MaRa down, except of course GoRa.
Rajaputhran / November 21, 2013
Yes, you don’t take the Brits seriously, but you did for Portuguese who gave your great great grand mothers sperms and names – De Silva, Fonseka, Fernando, Perera, etc. Shame on you, bastards. Despite of your blindness/ Sinhala fundamentalism, I should let you know one thing. Many educated, well-paid Sinhalese are leaving the country and never intend to come back. This is happening in the post-war period, which you call your golden Buddhist era. Why do Sinahelse want to go in huge number unlike in the past? It reminds me of the case when Jaffna Tamils left the peninsula during the emergence of LTTE and other Tamil militant groups. They left mainly because of LTTE and its rule over the region. Likewise, your people started leaving in huge number. It clearly says, there is gonna’ be a disaster soon. Forget about LTTE. Don’t you people want us to be eliminated, cornered, and kick off this land? You want our submission for peace and harmony. You will never attain it. And…. you will suffer the same way we did/ do, when Chinese impose the rules. Your “King” will be the last president of Sri Lanka.
Max Silva / November 21, 2013
You can scream till your face turns blue.But who cares?It is our show and we run it the way we want.Thanks Dharisha we want more from you.Hope your boss Ruwan will support you to the hilt.In fact we have decided not to have a presidential election campaign in 2014.The UNP has already started our campaign.Beating the living daylight out of Buddhist monks at Srikotha was the start.I am sure that Ranil,Ruwan,Karu,Mangala will have more surprise in store for us.Pl Dharisha continue with your 2014 Mahinda’s presidential campaign.
Patta Pal / November 21, 2013
A sensible assessment of the CHOGM debacle, whatever the rights or wrongs of the Brits, we played right into their hands and lost, with the locals thinking how dare they?
The answer is if you don’t like a young pup English PM preach to you, don’t host it! Simple as that. SL got what was coming, no surprises period.
Don’t you get it the whole David and Charles Act was perfectly choreographed by the British, the only unknown quantity was the MacRae incursion, and we even fluffed it by giving them all the ammunition they need against Sri Lanka
Shame on you Mr President for an abominable execution of your plan.