Colombo Telegraph

‘People Living In Stone Houses Should Not Throw Glasses’

By Charitha Ratwatte –

Charitha Ratwatte

Loka saama nayikawa, apey mara doothikawa (Leader of world peace/our devilish messenger)

The sub title appeared on the wall of the Colombo University in 1976 shortly after the Non-Aligned Summit was held in Colombo, at which Sri Lanka’s Prime Minster was elected Head of the Non Aligned Movement.

In the 1977 election, the government was routed and the Prime Minister deprived of civic rights. The current Chairman of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, allegedly in responding to British Prime Minister Cameron’s call for an international inquiry into war crimes, if Sri Lanka does not hold a credible inquiry before March 2104, commented: “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”

Apparently, a reference to the Lord Chilcot inquiry in Britain, set up with a mild remit by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, on lessons to be drawn from the Iraq war and the fact that there are allegations that the US State Department and London’s Whitehall are conniving to keep certain vital documents relating to discussions between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, on the decision to wage war, away from the inquiry.

CHOGM show

It is interesting that, as a wag pointed out, a certain boutique tourist guest house in the hills, is said to have a notice to stop guests throwing glasses at the stone walls; the wag wondered aloud whether this would have been applicable to recent dinner receptions in Colombo, with the corollary that ‘even if the glass contained Pimms Number One, Johnny Walker Blue Label or even Chivas Regal!’

Probably a reference to the ‘blue-blooded royalty’ that were trotted out by the ex-colonials to get the show going.

It is said that the Colombo CHOGM was attended by only 27 Heads of Government, out of a possible 53, the lowest such attendance in a long time. The stay-aways had many reasons, ranging from a plain and simple boycott, to national political compulsions, to the need to wriggle out of a commitment to host the next CHOGM, it is reported.

Bad publicity

It has been said that publicity, whether good or bad, remains publicity. A onetime Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, at the height of the GOSL vs. the LTTE and JVP battles, which were getting wide international publicity, especially the atrocities and assassinations by all sides in the late 1980s, used to say that once this was all over, Sri Lanka would be a brand known to the world and a strategic marketing effort to rebrand and sell Sri Lanka as a tourist holiday venue would be all that would be required to get the country back on its feet.

Bad publicity tops the list of the main outcome of CHOGM 2013. International coverage focused heavily on persistent allegations that were allegedly committed against civilians by both sides to the conflict in 2009 as the Tamil Tiger rebels were crushed at the end of a brutal civil war – the humanitarian operation into which the soldiers went into with a rifle in one hand and a Human Rights Charter in the other – and on the disappearances of people, both inside the war zone and outside it, during and after the conflict, and on the suppression of the media.

The Government had hoped that the hundreds of foreign journalists who came to Colombo to cover CHOGM would report on the capital’s newly-landscaped parks, the stunning line of ceremonially dressed-up tuskers and elephants at the opening ceremony, and the cultural performance depicting Sri Lanka’s history at the opening event.

But at the three main press conferences held, the questions were mainly on the alleged failure of the GOSL to hold anyone to account for the alleged deaths of nearly 40,000 civilians at the war’s end. At one point the Commonwealth Secretariat’s moderator pleadingly asked whether anyone had any questions not to do with Sri Lanka and human rights. No one did. A Sri Lankan Member of Parliament attended one such press conference and raised questions as to what the international media was doing when the Muslim citizens of Jaffna were driven out by the LTTE.

News is of a supplementary estimate for Rs. 1 billion submitted to Parliament to cover CHOGM-related costs. Rs. 33 million on a public awareness campaign. Rs. 446 million for security equipment for the Police. Rs. 200 million for the External Affairs Ministry.

Channel 4

The TV Channel 4 was dogged with typical ‘rent a crowd’ incidents from the moment they landed at the airport. Protesters holding up placards in English asking for an investigation into British atrocities in colonial Ceylon. Intelligence services surveillance was unrelenting and blatant; nothing was undercover. The TV crew even recorded the sleuths retreating with their faces covered when the cameras were trained on them. Clearly an attempt at intimidation.

An unprecedented act in Sri Lanka’s history that protesters were allowed to hold up a scheduled train, until people they objected to were offloaded. This sets an amazing precedent. The Channel 4 TV crew were bundled off and sent back to Colombo in a van hired by the Police. Later there was an issue as to who should pay for the van hire! An act unprecedented in this ‘five star’ democracy, which it was reasonable to assume, seeing the vicissitudes Sri Lanka had been through in the past, we thought we had seen it all.

A scheduled commuter train, stopped at a station, by a crowd of demonstrators, it is alleged hired by some political types, until some people they objected to were disembarked by the law enforcement authorities, after which the train was allowed to proceed! Such an unbelievable thing has not been reported from anywhere in the whole wide world.

Sri Lanka keeps entering the Guinness Book of Records for doing unique things! Maybe the Railway Department’s timetable should have a proviso to the effect that ‘passengers who purchase tickets are kindly advised that they are not guaranteed travel up to their planned, paid-for destination as local inhabitants along the route will have to consent for them to be allowed to travel to that location!’

At the airport there was a protest by a crowd, within a high security zone. Flights to Jaffna by private airlines were cancelled. A query to a foreign reporter as whether they could get to the east coast was responded to, by saying that they could not guarantee even being able to get to the hotel’s bar!

International inquiry

The British Prime Minister gave notice that if by March 2014 what he referred to as a ‘credible local investigation’ was not done and over with into the allegations of human rights abuses by the Government and the LTTE, Britain would push the UN Human Rights Council to hold an independent international inquiry.

Government ministers point-blank rebutted the need for an inquiry , but the State itself gave publicity to proposal submitted by the Government of South Africa for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, also allegedly discussed with the TNA political party which won the recent Northern Province election, in the way the South Africans had investigated their Apartheid era human rights abuses.

Images of women and relatives of the disappeared allegedly throwing themselves on Prime Minister David Cameron’s convoy when he visited Jaffna were shown on TV. One person at the welfare centre allegedly said that God would have sent Cameron to get him back his land from which he had been dispossessed. These stories really hit the international media headlines.

Allegations were made against Britain on the delay for the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and the alleged suppression of the Chilcot Report on the Iraq war. The current Chairman of CHOGM also quoted a Buddhist stanza: ‘A person should be concerned with his own actions rather that of others.’ But does one set of misdemeanours justify another? Especially at the nation state level? Also in the context of UN declarations and treaties that have accepted the need to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as the revised Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, which does not permit ethnic cleansing, war crimes, etc., even when there is a civil war? One wonders.

Low attendance

Overall attendance was low. Five star hotel rooms were block booked for the CHOGM conference at a princely rate. But some it is reported had occupancy at less than 20%. Although initially 4,000 rooms in 33 hotels were block booked, it is reported and alleged that actual occupancy fell to between 2,000 and 2,500.

This is the tourist season and normally hotels would have run at around 70% occupancy. Owners and shareholders are going to have to take a haircut of stunning proportions! Rooms could not be sold to other than those attending CHOGM, and no outside diners, night clubbers and patronisers of the bars, etc. were allowed. The leisure industry will take a big economic hit.

Commonwealth Business Forum

Then there was the Commonwealth Business Forum. As usual the hoopla was impressive: The most successful ever, the biggest-ever, attendance of even non-Commonwealth countries, unprecedented. 740 local participants. International groups: UK 139, China 85, India 77, Pakistan 34, Bangladesh 31, Australia 25, Nigeria 22, Ghana 17, USA 16. In addition 14 from ‘other North American countries’. Six Latin America, 78 other Africa, 41 other Europe, 64 other Asia, seven Australasia. It was claimed that 600 delegates were expected, the final turnout 1,660. It was supposed to bring in ODI.

All that was reported was one Chinese agreement to develop a massive port city in Colombo, the size of Monaco, and two other Australian and Hong Kong investments. The Port City, it is reported gives the developer rights to a part of the reclaimed land, and the rest will be disposed of by the State.

There was at one time much hostility to foreigners owning land, in any sort of way, both outright title and long leases. Now only leases are possible. No outright title. A penal tax was and has been introduced to discourage this. Now it’s a complete turnaround. Prime land is being handed to a foreign company. Have the necessary environment impact assessments, which the law requires been carried out on these massive land reclamation projects? Has there been transparent public scrutiny?

The Australian investment is the casino-led integrated resort in the heart of Colombo’s central business district. The developer has gone on record saying that “nothing will prevent Sri Lanka becoming a gambling Mecca”. An unfortunate analogy! There is some substantial opposition to this, among religious groups and civil society in general. Some are these groups are integral parts of the government.

The Hong Kong investment is an apartment complex, a car park and a club house. Given the propaganda build up for the business forum, it is a mighty effort which has brought a mouse! Newspapers were full of breakdowns in arrangements at the Business Forum.

Especially the lunch arranged at the Courtyard. There was no sufficient seating. There were stand up and eat podiums. Up to four delegates were jockeying to share one podium to eat. These included not only delegates but ministers and top guns of the BOI! A grand piano placed at the Courtyard was redundant. There could have been more tables! Young people who seemed to be designated helpers were unable to perform tier tasks satisfactorily, it was alleged.

Analysts say that the Chinese investment for the Port City had nothing to do with the Business Forum or the Commonwealth, it was in the pipeline way before, and was just announced to make it seem that China had suddenly become enamoured with the Commonwealth! Give the plethora of grants, concessional loans and commercial loans China has extended to Sri Lanka, nobody will be fooled!

Commonwealth Youth Forum

Then there is the Commonwealth Youth Forum. Sri Lanka has offered to fund the headquarters and the forum, if the HQ was located at Hambantota, it is allegedly reported. The Commonwealth Youth Affairs Council (CYAC) has been existence from the 1970s. This is nothing new. Some say old wine in new bottles.

Sri Lanka, which played a role in setting up the CYAC at a CHOGM held in Guyana, has played an active, leadership role in the Commonwealth Youth Affairs Council activities. There were number of training centres to train youth workers, in Africa, the Caribbean, and India and in the Pacific. Large numbers of Sri Lanka youth workers have been trained at these institutes. There was Commonwealth Youth Meeting held in Colombo in the 1980s presided over by the then Minister of Youth Affairs and Employment. So the Commonwealth’s youth program is an ongoing, traditional activity, whose forte has been technical assistance to develop the capacity of the youth development workers and programs of Commonwealth countries.

The National Youth Savings and Credit Co-operative (NYSCO), the Youth in Business Program, the Youth Sports Development Program, all received valuable technical assistance from the Commonwealth Youth Program, at one time. Sri Lanka played a decisive role in promoting the Youth Leadership Training Centre for the Pacific, for the Commonwealth Youth Program. Sri Lanka officials have presided over numerous sessions of the CYAC. It is welcomed that the leadership role is still continuing.

In fact the National Youth Services Council, which was first created in 1976 by Parliamentary statute, presented to Parliament by the then Minister of State, and the National Youth Corps, inaugurated in 2002 by the then Prime Minister and Minister of Policy Development, was the target for singular praise by the Minister of Finance in the 2014 Budget presented in Parliament recently. The exact words were “the leadership training initiatives of… The National Youth Corps and the National Youth Services Council have shown successful outcomes”.

Also the Youth parliament, which was first-ever convened at the Polonnaruwa/Pulasthipura Yovun Pura in 1983 and reconvened in a reborn avatar more recently was also referred to in the Budget speech of 2014: “The Youth Parliament helps to develop leadership skills among youth and democratic values.” Special financial allocations were made in the Budget for these youth development programs, which have a history of over three decades in Sri Lanka and have nurtured generations of leaders.

Meeting the costs

With the CHOGM summit over, the attention of economic analysts has turned to meeting the costs. The budget deficit stands at 5.8% of GDP. There was some talk of a ‘bonus’ paid to employees out of the Budget, but that talk has now died down, with the current position being ‘do not expect any salary hikes’.

The Government is expected to borrow Rs. 1.1 trillion to bridge the budget deficit in 2014. Further revenues are expected by making loss haemorrhaging SOEs more efficient and new taxes. There is some talk of a wealth tax being reintroduced. At present the public are taxed, directly and indirectly, by 17 revenue streams. New tax streams or an increase will be required to meet these expenses and the bloated public sector salaries and the unfunded pensions, which come out of current revenue. The bottom line is that Sri Lanka needs a further 2% increase in GDP or a cut in expenditure of about Rs. 250 billion over the next two years. Given the massive outlay for CHOGM, paying for this will be a substantial challenge. A Rs. 1 billion supplementary estimate has been mentioned earlier.

The actual Budget has been presented, consisting mainly of expenditure proposals. The revenue proposals came in the second innings of this particular test match, in the form of gazette raising import duties across the board, ‘to promote local production’. The 1976 Non-Aligned Summit was followed by an electoral rout of the ruling party. What will 2014 hold?

As author Michael Ondatjee has said: ‘In Sri Lanka, a lie well told, is worth a thousand facts!’ It is well known that ‘for those who do not learn the lessons of history, history repeats itself’.

Back to Home page