This week, the Government of Sri Lanka admitted for the first time, the financial losses that the country has been subjected to as a result of losing the European Union (EU) GSP Plus facility in 2010. At the time that we bartered away this facility, what was told to us was quite a different story. Shrugging off prophecies of severe impact on the apparel industry, ministerial spokesmen boasted that Sri Lanka did not actually need this facility and that its removal would not cause major financial impact.
A curious question
Now we hear the truth, albeit dragged out unwillingly from none other than the proverbial horse’s mouth or in other words, from Minister of Investment Promotion Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena in Parliament in response to an opposition question. In brief, the loss of this facility ‘has caused the closure of 25 apparel factories, forcing almost 10,000 people out of work, with the total loss to the country exceeding Rs. 782 million from apparel exports’ (Daily Financial Times, 24th October 2013).
To a casual observer, it may be a curious question as to why the government would dig in its heels in refusing to honour preconditions laid down by the EU which were applicable to all interested countries, not only Sri Lanka. Was this part of a grand Western plan to subordinate the country to vested interests, one could ask? Was Sri Lanka being asked to perform to impossible standards, to satisfy unreachable goals as part of a scheme designed to humiliate the country for having won the war against the Tamil Tigers so as to speak?
Forsaking a sensible approach
The reality was very far from this case. At that time, talk of international conspiracies and a Tiger hiding behind every bush had, true enough, not been rubbished so thoroughly as now. These games became particularly ridiculous after the impeachment of the country’s 43rd Chief Justice when even the Chief Prelates, senior clergy of the Congress of Religions and industry leaders were accused of being conspirators when they rightly voiced their perturbation.
This is not to deny that the propaganda network operated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or its remnants after the 2009 military defeat is certainly highly skilled in its functioning. Yet the best way to meet that propaganda would have been through reasoned debate. Rather than this most eminently sensible approach, every dissenter was labeled an international conspirator to the extent that government propaganda backfired, making its progenitors look remarkably silly. Such counterproductive rantings were evidenced in respect of all critiques made of government action, national or international, constructive or abrasive. To make matters worse, this was complimented (if one may call it that) by uncouth and abusive government supporters traipsing the halls of the United Nations tasked with the sole objective of harassing and humiliating critical voices. This crude behaviour got to be so problematic that even those United Nations diplomats who tended to be partial towards Sri Lanka on the basis that the country needed more time to recover from a decades-long conflict, stood back appalled. It is encouraging to see that in the past year, such asinine behavior in international fora has changed to some extent though much of the damage has already been done.
Uncanny foreshadowing of the LLRC
But when the EU GSP facility was under reconsideration three years ago, this propaganda attack was on in full throated fury, regardless of anxious interviews to the newspapers by EU representatives who almost imploringly yet vainly called upon the government to yield a little. And what exactly were these preconditions for the GSP Plus facility? Did they involve the country’s national security or the integrity of the State?
The converse was the case. In fact, in an almost uncanny foreshadowing of later events, much of what the EU said reflected what this government’s proudly homegrown Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) itself said a few years later. And in an aside, it is vastly amusing to recall that, true to form, the lunatic fringe Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) went so far as to allege that the LLRC had betrayed the country.
Brushing this aside, detailed examination of commonalities between the EU’s recommendations and what the LLRC recommended would be an interesting effort for another occasion. Suffice to say for the moment that the politicization of the police investigative function, the need for an independent National Police Commission and the separation of the military command structure from the Department of the Police were important common points. Needless to say, this demand cannot be met by a farcical Ministry of Law and Order operating under a political authority which remains linked to the military.
The practical manifestation of the absurdities that arise consequently was seen very well this week when the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence severely castigated the North’s Chief Minister CV Wigneswaran for asking that police powers be effectively devolved. It may well be asked as to how the Defence Secretary can make these statements when the Department of the Police (or so we are informed) has been moved to a new Ministry. This clearly shows the command responsibility still exercised by the Ministry of Defence over the Police.
Losses to the country due to braggadocio
Let us be very clear on this in the final result. The EU GSP Plus facility was not extended to Sri Lanka in 2010 because the government refused to take certain steps for the betterment of its own people. This call was not part of a grand international design to humiliate Sri Lanka. If the country had a Minister of Foreign Affairs who was less cravenly servile to the Rajapaksa administration, this would have been apparent at that time itself.
Instead, what we saw unseemly braggadocio. Years later, the government now admits the negative impact of the loss of this facility on apparel industry workers who form part of our society’s underprivileged. These matters are however inconsequential for the politically privileged who luxuriate in their expressways and mushrooming five star hotels. Unfortunately, this continues to be the common tale of woe of post war Sri Lanka’s poorest sectors, majority and minorities alike.