Ex British Prime Minister and multi-millionaire Tony Blair’s summer holiday in Sri Lanka has been taking place under privileged conditions, with next to no media exposure. A visit that takes place on the invitation of those holding the reins of power in Colombo, the Blairs were provided with state security and amenities during their visit. Two people who have played a special role in facilitating this visit were, indeed, Mnagala Samaraweera MP and Chandrika Kuamaratunga. The former, a clothing design graduate of Central Saint Martin’s in London, was also instrumental in fixing up a meeting between Tony Blair and Mahinda Rajapaksa back in 2006. That meeting took place in Britain, at a different time, for Messrs Samaraweera, Rajapaksa and Blair. In the previous year, Samaraweera played a frontline role in Rajapaksa’s presidential campaign, which led to Rajapaksa’s election as Sri Lanka’s fifth executive president. In that same year, Blair secured his third re-election as British Prime Minister, with a parliamentary majority slashed to a mere 66 seats (as opposed to UK Labour’s 160-seat majority in the previous parliament). Having been Prime Minister since 1997, Blair’s popularity was in decline. A key reason for this was Blair’s decision to support the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, in the absence of a 2nd UN resolution. At the 2005 general election, the Liberal Democrats castigated Blair as responsible for the carnage that was Iraq, an argument that won for them a good few disenchanted Labour voters.
Flash forward to 2015.
Having just won the general election with a high count of preferential votes, Samaraweera has been reappointed to a cabinet ministerial portfolio somewhat removed, to say the very least, from his profession-proper (i.e. fashion designer) – that of foreign affairs. Indeed, Sri Lanka often distinguishes herself in appointing individuals with no prior experience in diplomacy and/or international civil service, no significant foreign experience, experience with international consultancies, or remarkable foreign language skills (other than Sinhala, Tamil and English) to spearhead its foreign policy apparatus. Having said that, Samaraweera’s appointment is less appalling, when compared with some of his predecessors, and more alarmingly, the track record of foreign affairs ministers who happened to be highly qualified, such as university professors. To borrow from Paul Auster, the Music of Chance certainly appears to be in Samaraweera’s favour in the 2015 quarter.
Rajapaksa was ousted from power in January 2015. Local specifics put aside, this was the result of an operation that received U.S. and Indian endorsement. Given the security challenges the USA is facing in the South China Sea, there is a clear effort to ensure that USA-friendly governments hold power across the South and Southeast Asian regions. In this light, it was neither majoritarian politics, corruption nor nepotism that caused disfavour for Rajapaksa internationally, but his close ties with Beijing. Rajapaksa’s second attempt at a political comeback was equally thwarted, through political machinations that ensured the West’s preferred outcome. Media reports indicate that Rajapaksa has nonetheless decided to remain in politics, most probably to wait for a new opportunity to spearhead a Sinhala nationalist uproar against the Ranil Wickremesinghe government. There is no question of the fact that the Rajapaksa ousting has been favourable for media freedom and fundamental rights. Domestically, a primary cause of public disenchantment with the Rajapaksa administration stemmed from the myopic policies of his siblings and preposterousness of his offspring. Despite his downfall, Rajapaksa continues to command the support of a considerable segment of the Sinhala community.
Internationally, the Rajapaksa administration’s biggest controversy involves atrocities committed during the last stages of the war, and in its immediate aftermath. The Channel 4 revelations have provided insights into such violent excesses that could have been avoided, in the best interests of the Sri Lankan state. In an era of smart phones, selfies and quick information transfer, occurrences of this nature cannot be pushed under the carpet, as the Rajapaksas initially envisaged. The issue has been used for political advantage in both Tamil and Sinhala nationalist circles, with relatively little done in the interests of the people who lost loved ones, orphaned children, single mothers, parents who lost their children, who are all forced to live with the burden of their suffering.
Let’s say it out and loud: the Rajapaksa administration’s post-war by-line that it fought the war with ‘zero civilian casualties’ is, if anything, is a blatant con. No counterinsurgency operation is fought with zero civilian casualties. If an investigation is to be held on every act of atrocity committed in the war’s latter stages and immediate aftermath, the finger is very likely to be pointed at those who held the highest decision-making powers in Sri Lanka’s security establishment back then, especially presidential sibling Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a citizen of the United States of America.
Blair, our protagonist of a holidaymaker, has a deeply tarnished reputation in his own country, with allegations of war crimes looming large over his prime ministerial legacy. The release of the Chilcot Report has been deliberately dragged on. Despite inconsistent justification narratives, it is a clear reality that the Bush-Blair adventure in Iraq – launched against expert opinion – opened a Pandora’s Box of instability and terror in the Middle East, which has today transpired into the ISIS phenomenon. In this backdrop, Blair’s 2007 appointment as the Quartet’s Special Envoy to the Middle East was all but futile (he resigned from this duty earlier this year).
New Labour, largely Blair’s brainchild, represented, pace minor exceptions, a continuation of a Thatcherite outlook. Labour under Blair veered so much to the right that in retirement, Blair’s true colours recently emerged when he strongly condemned Jeremy Corbyn MP’s Labour leadership bid. Corbyn, MP for North Islington since 1983, has been wrongly classified as representing an ‘extreme left’, when in reality, he upholds a moderate social democratic policy agenda. Blair has predicted the ‘annihilation’ of Labour if Corbyn is to be elected leader in September 2015. Blair’s aversion was for a man who, aged 66, has injected unprecedented new energy to the Labour Party through his leadership campaign, attracting a large following of youth and securing expert endorsement for his economic policies, a breath of fresh air to repeated austerity. Blair condemns Corbyn’s social democratic policies – which more and more people embrace heartily – as ‘old-fashioned leftist’. While Corbyn’s popularity rises day by day with his agenda filled with jam-packed public meetings, Blair categorically discards the views of Party members, calling for a leader who would unconditionally stand by the capitalist interests that Blair represents. The 2015 Labour leadership campaign has unambiguously exposed Blair’s right-wing and outright anti-democratic leanings. Corbyn, for his part, has responded in no uncertain terms.
Blair, Rajapaksa and yahapalana whitewashing
Both Blair and Rajapaksa terms of office are stained by allegations of war crimes and both have demonstrated anti-democratic tendencies. Blair took Britain into an outright illegitimate, ill thought-out and neoliberal military venture in the Middle East. In fairness to Rajapaksa, he fought a secessionist foe within the national territory of the country he led. There was a long track record of failed efforts at seeking a negotiated compromise – a situation that led to the view that the only way forward lay in militarily defeating the LTTE. Despite the atrocities, and as opposed to Blair’s Iraq nightmare, Rajapaksa’s war served to improve national security in his country. Rajapaksa’s failure mainly lay in the non-respect of no fire zones, violence upon the surrendered enemy, and the unwillingness to launch a credible national mechanism to examine such atrocities.
What leaves one bemused is the ostensibly anti-Rajapaksa Colombo elite’s attitude towards Blair. Why do Sri Lankan leaders, supposedly committed to the rule of law and good governance, court Blair? The answer partly lies in the Colombo elite’s blind admiration of all things Western and white. The visit of an ex-British Prime Minister is thereby perceived as an ‘achievement’ of the yahapalana government’s measures to rebuild Sri Lanka’s ‘image’ internationally. That ex-Premier’s record in the UK and on the world stage is irrelevant to Colombo’s elite. In their euphoria over Blair, they ignore the fact that the dubious records of Blair and Rajapaksa are equally controversial. Their prejudices and biases make Rajapaksa the villain/village thug and Blair a distinguished foreign dignitary.
Secondly, Colombo may intend to request Blair’s help when dealing with the UN HRC and Western governments. Blair himself has promised to talk on behalf of Sri Lanka internationally. Colombo will certainly have an influential friend in Blair, but steps of this nature do not differ from the Rajapaksas hiding behind Sir Desmond de Silva QC, costly lobbying firms and Chris Nonis’s London contacts to hide their wartime failures. A mature and more advisable approach is that of harnessing international links with individuals with strong track records of standing for human rights, the duplicity of the international system and injustice, in all its forms.
The day the Colombo elite reaches that level of maturity, beyond their neo-colonial, ‘Master-race-worshipping’ hangover, Sri Lanka could take real forward steps.