By Dharisha Bastians –
If there is one thing the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa loves, it is to put on a grand show. Domestically and internationally, the regime has excelled at marketing its smallest successes to great effect. As it prepares to strut upon the global stage for the performance of a lifetime, the ruling administration is pulling out all stops to showcase Sri Lanka’s paradise potential, economic promise and political stability. Blown away by the pomp, pageantry and red cement sidewalks, who will stop to look just beneath the surface of the CHOGM beautification?
Colombo Mayor A.J.M. Muzammil has appealed to the patriotic sensibilities of the city’s residents. A special notice issued by him kindly requests Colombo residents with homes facing main roads in the capital to break down boundary walls where possible, paint the exteriors and grow flower gardens. The Mayor, the main opposition UNP’s sole elected head of a local government authority, also appealed for residents to illuminate their homes or offices with electric bulbs while CHOGM is in progress, to “display the Sri Lankan pride”.
The City of Colombo, where heads of Government of dozens of Commonwealth countries will meet in just over three weeks, is in the throes of an unprecedented overhaul. The Government appears resolute in its decision to ensure every major road in Colombo that will accommodate VIP motorcades next month will look its best. To that end, for the next three weeks, Sri Lankan citizens will endure gridlock traffic conditions caused by gaping holes, yellow construction tape and men at work on virtually every road leading in and out of the city.
Uneven concrete blocks are being replaced with red and grey paving stones to give urban sidewalks a contemporary, clean, and most of all, uniform look. The upgrade is part of a World Bank-funded Metro Urban Colombo Development Project, carried out under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development. It is being accelerated ahead of the biggest global conference the city has seen since the Non Aligned Movement Summit in 1976.
On finished roads, illuminated water features have emerged and the CHOGM branding is already up. The five-hued CHOGM pinwheel decorates every big round-about in the city, occasionally catching a passing breeze. It’s not really a pinwheel of course. The CHOGM 2013 logo is a blue water lily, Sri Lanka’s national blossom, with its coloured petals symbolising the unity and diversity of the Commonwealth membership. At the heart of the flower, a chequered globe drawn from the Commonwealth logo gels nicely with the summit slogan: CHOGM Sri Lanka – A world within.
Against all odds and at great cost to the Commonwealth in general and the Secretary General’s office in particular, Sri Lanka will play host at the organisation’s biennial summit on 15 November. The regime’s own brand of shrewd backroom diplomacy, coercion and its remarkable capacity to win over officials at the Commonwealth Secretariat put the organisation’s Western lobby to shame in the months of wrangling over the summit venue.
That the Commonwealth’s biggest meeting takes place in a State that 11 months ago unconstitutionally impeached its Chief Justice, shot dead protestors at a demonstration for clean water, permitted the meteoric rise of violent extremist groups threatening religious minorities and boasts the highest number of outstanding disappearances in the world next to Iraq, might damage the credibility of the 60-year-old organisation. But for the Rajapaksa Administration, four years after it won a massive victory over the LTTE, CHOGM is going to be its crowning moment. It is the regime’s first real international victory in years.
In the final month before the summit, the stage-setting for this grand performance is underway. CHOGM visitors will enter the capital on a new expressway from the airport and be treated to views of well-lit streets, manicured islands, flowerpots and pinwheels at every street corner. As with any major international event in Sri Lanka, beggars, shanty dwellers and stray dogs are the first casualties of the mop up. Beggars are being shooed off the streets and will likely be given a temporary home at the Welikada prison. On the Katunayake Expressway, shanty covers have been deployed to shield VIP travellers from a view of Colombo’s unsightly underbelly, lurking always at the corners in spite of the Government’s best efforts. The dogs are much less fortunate.
The Khuram Shaikh case
Of course the cosmetic physical arrangements were not quite adequate to sway the majority of the Commonwealth in an age when Sri Lanka is facing intense criticism on its governance and rights record. This past year the Government has made it a point to roll out certain metaphorical covers weeks or days ahead of a major international event. These are valiant yet blatantly transparent attempts on the part of the Rajapaksa Administration to demonstrate progress on those fronts the international community is being particularly bothersome about.
Ahead of a visit by the UN’s Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay, the regime made heady progress. The President set up a Disappearances Commission comprising eminently respectable commissioners, the Government announced the reopening of an investigation into the killing of 17 aid workers in Muttur and his administration arrested 12 suspects – all of them security forces personnel – in connection with the murders of five young boys in Trincomalee in 2006.
The latter was a case of particular interest to High Commissioner Pillay, who has raised the Trinco-5 murders in every report to the UN Human Rights body on Sri Lanka. Oddly enough, the names of the 12 Special Task Force officers were never revealed. The Government merely announced that there were 12 suspects remanded in connection with the case, one of them an Assistant Superintendent of Police. But at least the non-summary proceedings into what is almost certainly a case of summary execution were reportedly underway.
In the past six months or so, with CHOGM looming, multiple steps were taken to ensure summit organisers would not get jittery. Swift action has been assured on several fronts and the conduct of the northern election in September was a major concession to the Commonwealth and the UN. But CHOGM also required one grand gesture – one that would speak straight to its heart. With Britain chomping at the bit over the Government’s rights record, the Khuram Shaikh murder case became the perfect bait.
As early as July 2013, reports were swirling around Temple Trees that indictments would be filed against suspects in the Christmas Day murder of the British tourist and the brutal rape of his girlfriend in Tangalle in 2011. The chief suspect in the murder is ruling party strongman and Tangalle Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman Sampath Vidanapathirana; the violence took place in the Rajapaksa heartland. The punishment of loyalists and cronies has never come easy to the administration, no matter how grave the crime. The Vidanapathirana indictment was a bitter but inevitable pill that had to be swallowed. The only silver lining was to ensure it could be done to exact maximum mileage internationally.
In these columns on 1 August, it was reported that Shaikh’s murderers would be indicted days or weeks ahead of the Commonwealth summit in Colombo. This week, the Attorney General referred the indictments to the Tangalle High Court, which will in turn transfer the high profile case to the Colombo High Court, according to Additional Solicitor General Suhada Gamlath. The indictments are still pending but likely before the end of week, according to sources at the AG’s Department. The indictments will be served up as a special gift to the British Government which has decided in the face of unprecedented opposition from every quarter, to send its Prime Minister to attend the Colombo summit.
By the time CHOGM opens on 15 November, Sampath Vidanapathirana may be facing trial for his grotesque crime. The real question though is what his fate will be once the CHOGM wagon packs up and leaves these shores late next month.
Two steps back
Weeks after Pillay’s departure from Colombo, the Trinco-5 STF suspects were released on bail, with stern warnings by the Trincomalee Magistrate to refrain from intimidating witnesses in the case. Following the initial announcement in July, there has been no word from the Government about the investigation into the death of 17 aid workers in Muttur. The military report on Weliweriya was never made public. Hardline Sinhala groups like the Bodu Bala Sena, quiet for months leading up to the Pillay visit, are flexing their muscles again, readying for another anti-Muslim onslaught euphemised as an ‘Anti-Halal campaign’.
After the impeachment of a Chief Justice independent Commonwealth jurists found had violated the organisation’s own Latimer House Principles on judicial independence and removal of senior judges, the Supreme Court headed by a former Government advisor moves to deny the fundamental rights of suspects arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Ganeshan Nimalaruban, the Vavuniya prison inmate who died in custody following a prison riot, bruised and bloody from assaults to his limbs, was arbitrarily pronounced a terrorist in the Supreme Court, even though he was never found guilty of the charge in any court of law.
In the post-CHOGM era, it is not difficult to guess what Sampath Vidanapathirana’s fate might be.
The ruling administration’s hyper development drive has been roundly criticised for being showpieces with little impact on the lives of ordinary citizens, with some exceptions to the rule. The regime has borrowed billions to construct an idling airport, a southern port that ships must be legally compelled to call at and convention halls in the middle of nowhere. The economic peace dividend is yet to reach the ordinary citizen; if anything, post war the financial burden has increased phenomenally. Investments in the health and education sectors are few and far between; what is the point in investing in areas that cannot be crowed about since the results are – at least in the short term – intangible?
CHOGM beautification is not very different. Communities of less-desirables will be evicted from the city and social injustice, the erosion of civil liberties, impunity and institutional breakdown continues apace. But the roads will be paved, pretty fountains erected and visitors to the country will see Colombo residents walking on sidewalks paved in bright red.
Renowned artist Chandraguptha Thenuwara produced a gripping portrayal of this strange duplicity in an exhibition aptly titled ‘Beautification’ in June this year. On fresh paving stones coloured red and grey, Thenuwara depicted a decapitated goddess of justice, her scales broken and discarded; he embossed human bones, long forgotten and glossed over under the fresh cement stones. In some sections of the paving, Thenuwara had painted camouflage; in others he had embossed barbed wire. His artistic rebellion was a poignant story of contemporary Colombo, where cosmetic changes lapped up by urbanites are steadily erasing the memory of victims and injustice.
Crown Sri Lanka
Sometimes of course, even the well-laid plans of an all-powerful Government are subverted. Plans to enact legislation to permit the construction of a mega casino complex in the heart of Colombo by Australian casino mogul James Packer were shelved by the Government this week amid protests from within its coalition and strong opposition to the move from the UNP, the JVP and the Congress of Religions.
The victory is a significant one for the Opposition and civil society, but despite these early setbacks, there is little doubt that Crown Sri Lanka will get its massive tax holiday and open its doors in 2017. While the proposed income tax cuts for a gaming establishment defies logic and must be checked, at the heart of the casino controversy is the regime’s duplicity. It is not only in gross violation of its polls promises to usher in a ‘dharmishta’ , it is also apparently willing to offer tax breaks to the world’s richest businessmen, all the while taxing the life out of the citizenry.
Crown Sri Lanka’s official promotional video if anything highlights this disparity in a capital city that is increasingly serving only the interests of the super rich. Moving to the soundtrack of a popular patriotic song by performers Bhathiya and Santhush, the clip features the proposed resort facility with water effects on the Beira Lake to rival any Las Vegas gaming centre. Across the lake, ordinary Sri Lankans, strolling near the Gangaramaya Seemamalakaya with children on their shoulders, stare in awe at the amazing water effects in front of the resort.
With no major Government revenue likely from Packer because of the offered tax breaks, the ostentatious gaming resort will result in no significant improvement in the lives of Sri Lankan citizens. On the contrary, the Packer deal may make matters worse for all but a handful of individuals who stand to profit from the deal-making prospects the mega project has to offer.
Inadvertently, Crown Sri Lanka’s promoters have cottoned on to exactly the kind of capital Colombo is becoming, all lights and sound, always with ordinary citizens on the outside looking in.
But the plight of ordinary folk will not weigh heavily on a Government that is looking forward to playing gracious host to high profile world leaders three weeks from now. Starting on 15 November, Sri Lanka will assume the chair of a major international organisation. It will face another tumultuous session at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next March as chair of the Commonwealth. There might be some bad press overseas, but at home, CHOGM will portray President Mahinda Rajapaksa as being at the pinnacle of the world community as his Government goes into a year of likely national elections.
As far as the President is concerned, the lucky pinwheel is spinning firmly in his favour.
Courtesy Daily FT