By Dharisha Bastians –
President Rajapaksa’s benevolent smiles and warm hospitality as he welcomes world leaders to his showpiece summit may mask the grimmer realities facing the people living in the shadow of the new Chair of the Commonwealth
Days ahead of being crowned king of the Commonwealth of Nations, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is a jubilant mood. The Sri Lankan Head of State is often pictured beaming with pride at various precursor events leading up to the main Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that will get underway at his namesake theatre tomorrow morning.
His good spirits are such that not even the spontaneous meeting with the controversial Channel 4 news team that obtained accreditation and arrived in Sri Lanka to cover the summit could mar the mood. Summoning up his customary charm, an affable President Rajapaksa sauntered up to the British broadcaster’s Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Miller and shook his hand, shortly before dismissing concerns over mounting allegations of rights abuses by his Government and inviting the crew for tea.
As incoming chair of the Commonwealth and host of the organisation’s largest meeting held biennially, President Rajapaksa has a great deal to smile about.
Lisping children in spotless white lama sari stand up before international dignitaries and speak hopefully about their future under his watch. Presenters hail him as the ‘Father of the Nation’. Tamil and Sinhalese dances are fused artistically on stages to symbolise ethnic harmony in the ‘new Sri Lanka’. His capital is gleaming from its recent makeover. Its quaint colonial architecture has been dusted off and restored to herald the arrival of the heir-apparent of the former British Empire.
On roadsides that will be frequented by VVIP motorcades in the next three days, larger-than-life images of the President and his siblings smile benevolently in welcome of delegates for a historic summit that will seek to reinforce Commonwealth values of democracy, human rights and good governance when world leaders gather here tomorrow.
President Rajapaksa’s own speeches at various opening ceremonies have been filled with commitments to human rights, democracy, press freedom and development with social justice. Those buzz words are ironic, because the gathering takes place in the long shadow of certain events and legacies that the lights at the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa theatre will not entirely blot out.
Poor media relations
The Rajapaksa administration started CHOGM week off on the wrong foot after attempting to detain and deport two Parliamentarians from Australia and New Zealand for violating the country’s immigration laws. Green Party MP Lee Rhiannon from Australia and Jan Logie from New Zealand arrived in Sri Lanka on tourist visas, immigration officials say, to conduct a fact-finding tour in the North and hold a press briefing, in violation of the country’s immigration laws.
Their detention has created a hailstorm of controversy in Australia, where Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop were preparing to arrive in Colombo for CHOGM.
For the second time in two weeks, an Australian national had been detained by Sri Lankan immigration authorities. Two representatives of the International Federation of Journalists, Australian nationals, had been detained for interrogation the previous week, also for allegedly violating visa regulations. Australian Foreign Minister Bishop had been compelled to raise the issue of the detained media activists with External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris in order to have them released. Australia has been Sri Lanka’s most strident supporter in the past year or so, both within the Commonwealth and outside.
Realising the value of the Rajapaksa Administration’s support to curb the flow of illegal immigrants to its shores, Canberra has actively chosen to gloss over the country’s rights record and make a strong case for CHOGM in Sri Lanka. New Zealand has shown equal solidarity. The country’s Premier was the first Head of Government to confirm participation at the November summit in Colombo. In one fell swoop with Logie’s detention on Sunday, Colombo had managed to embarrass the Governments in both Canberra and Wellington, for continuing their association with Colombo which was “harassing” its own national MPs.
Four days after the unfortunate incident, therefore, the Government is still doing damage control. Issuing a media release yesterday, the Government is now claiming Immigration authorities never detained Rhiannon and Logie, but only “apprised” them of their visa conditions at the TNA office in Bambalapitiya. By blowing the issue out of proportion, the Government had successfully turned a rather nondescript visit by little known MPs into a full-blown diplomatic incident.
Most of what has transpired since, as the countdown to the summit of world leaders winds down, amounts to similar attempts by the ruling administration to shoot itself in the foot. In the full glare of the world’s media that has descended on Colombo to cover the summit, Sri Lanka is cracking down hard on anti-Government demonstrations, journalists and rights activists in befuddling ways. Britain’s Channel 4 network and the Samagi Human Rights Festival have faced the brunt of the assault.
Demonstrations greeted Channel 4 teams at the Bandaranaike International Airport and the Hilton Colombo Residencies where the team is staying during its visit. The book ‘Corrupted Journalism’ published by Engage Sri Lanka mysteriously slipped into the media packs of foreign reporters travelling from overseas for CHOGM coverage. The publication was an attempt to deconstruct Channel 4 documentaries that have repeatedly alleged the Sri Lankan State committed major rights abuses in the final phase of the war with the LTTE. Commonwealth Spokesman Richard Uku has promised to examine how the book came to be inserted into the official CHOGM media packs. But media relations with the host nation of a major international summit were already off to a bad start.
In the week of CHOGM so far, the mistrust between the foreign press and the Sri Lankan Government has only deepened.
Private airlines grounded
Terrified of stories that could emerge if foreign media crews descend on the Northern Province, circulars were sent out to private domestic airlines from the Civil Aviation Authority, ordering the suspension of all flights to Jaffna from 11-18 November 2013. Aircraft could be chartered but only subject to Defence Ministry clearance. When a private airline operator happened to inform President
Rajapaksa of the development, aides say he was indignant about the move. “If we ground the flights, they’ll walk there if they have to – they’re journalists – don’t these people understand that?” the President is reported to have remarked. Since then the Sri Lanka Air Force operator Helitours is permitting bookings, but it is not clear if the flights will take off.
Over the weekend, Britain’s ITV crew found their flight to Jaffna grounded ‘due to bad weather’. The crew finally travelled to the Northern Province by road and spent three hours at the Omanthai Check Point before they were permitted to pass.
Story of the disappeared
Yet, of all these onslaughts upon fundamental freedoms, the most poignant tragedy to unfold 48 hours before world leaders converge on the nation’s capital is the story of bus-loads of Tamil families stopped from entering Colombo to raise awareness about missing loved ones.
Sri Lanka’s 5,000 plus disappeared, the second largest number in the world only after Iraq, is one of the most heart-wrenching parts of the country’s post-war narrative. Last morning, several bus-loads of families of the disappeared were stopped by the military in Medawachchiya and Madhu and prevented from proceeding to Colombo where they were to participate in the Human Rights Festival.
The same thing happened in March this year, bus-loads of the same families had been turned back by the military when they attempted to travel to the UN Headquarters to hand over a petition on the disappeared to officials there. Yesterday, frustrated in their efforts to reach Colombo to attend the festival, the civilians sat on the roadside near the Madhu Church and in Vavuniya and staged brief demonstrations before Police dispersed the crowds.
Law enforcement crackdowns on pro-establishment demonstrations are far less emphatic. Police were no match for the crowds that flooded the railway track at Anuradhapura when pro-Government demonstrators laid siege to the train carrying Channel 4 journalists to the former rebel capital of Kilinochchi last morning. The siege continued for hours after which Police insisted they could not guarantee the security of the foreign journalists and escorted them by car back to Colombo. The incident was tweeted widely and ended in an irate British Foreign Secretary William Hague taking the issue up with Minister Peiris, almost soon after he arrived in Colombo yesterday.
Ranil under fire
Meanwhile, the only kind of demonstrators able to mobilise and assemble in the heavily-garrisoned capital of Colombo had now converged on the Human Rights Festival taking place at the UNP Headquarters of Sirikotha. Hundreds of male protestors holding posters decrying the event as being pro-LTTE mobbed the front and side gates of Sirikotha, making it difficult for politicians, activists and civilians to enter. When Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s vehicle neared the gates, demonstrators mobbed his vehicle and pelted it with stones. UNP politicos claim vehicles attached to various Government ministries had transported the demonstrators to Pita Kotte.
As countless dramas unfold on the streets, CHOGM side events continue to be filled with platitudes about inclusivity and fostering Commonwealth values. The External Affairs Minister of Sri Lanka and the Secretary General of the Commonwealth jointly co-hosted press briefings and insisted participation at this year’s summit in Colombo was robust, despite the calls for a boycott.
“We rejoice in our friends and in the confidence, they have placed in us and in the Commonwealth under our leadership,” Minister Peiris gushed at the Briefing Room of the CHOGM Media Centre on Tuesday evening. His views were fully endorsed by the Secretary General, who vowed Sri Lanka would register progress on human rights protection in a tangible way going forward.
Eleventh hour dropouts
The events that unfolded hours after this expression of confidence never stood up to the claim. But the Office of the Secretary General and the Conference Spokesman have remained tight-lipped about the conduct of their host, who has found it difficult to contain its rogue elements even in the very week of the controversial summit. Not everyone is as reticent.
On Tuesday (12), the Prime Minister of Mauritius Dr. Navinchandra Ramgoolam announced an eleventh-hour boycott of CHOGM in Colombo, even though his country is the Commonwealth’s next summit host. That the Head of Government of the incoming CHOGM host would absent himself from the summit on grounds of principle is unprecedented. Dr. Ramgoolam alluded to the revolutionary spirit of his decision in a long speech to the Mauritius National Assembly on Tuesday.
“Mr. Sharma, the Commonwealth Secretary General, had told me, ‘if Mauritius wants to host the Summit, you have to be present’. There is a passation of the whole system, that it would be unprecedented. I said I would watch very carefully and I would take a final decision,” the Mauritian Premier told the Parliament.
The candid statement outlining his reasons for the boycott reflects poorly on the Secretary General who appears to have soft-peddled Sri Lanka related issues when other Commonwealth Members were pushing for stronger action. Sharma’s inability to retain an objective distance from the international political machinations of the regime in Colombo has eroded confidence in his Office, with member states now openly questioning his actions.
The Mauritian Prime Minister explains to his National Assembly that Sri Lanka’s hosting of CHOGM was deferred from 2011 to 2013 to give the country enough time to work on post-war reconciliation and a political solution for the Tamil minority. In the months running up to the summit in Colombo this year, Dr. Ramgoolam explains that Mauritius repeatedly raised the issue of whether Sri Lanka was doing enough to address all these concerns. Part of that transcript follows:
“I met the Commonwealth Secretary General on purpose because I wanted to know, what is the progress that is being achieved? Can we justify? And we had this meeting with Mr. Kamalesh Sharma in June this year, I made it clear that we intend to monitor the evolution of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and then take the appropriate action if we think we should take. He made it clear to me that things are being done… In no uncertain terms I expressed my grave concerns about human rights violations in Sri Lanka. The Commonwealth Secretary General told me that they are putting pressure for them to have the elections in the north of Sri Lanka… My information that I have tried to get from different quarters is that the Sri Lankan Government is not doing enough.”
Mauritius is not alone. Canada and India are also in its corner, one explicitly so, the other more discreetly. But in the past several days, many delegations of Commonwealth Member states have downgraded their attendance, although the reasons for the downgrade have varied, according to Commonwealth Secretariat sources.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago announced she was skipping the summit. Some of the eleventh-hour disappointments are African member states of the Commonwealth that the Government has been pushing hard to cultivate and build relations with as it takes arms against the Western lobby pushing for accountability for alleged crimes committed in the last stages of the war and a political settlement with the Tamils.
In its haste to control the message leaving the CHOGM reporting ground, the Government has done nothing to help its cause. Every story leaving Sri Lanka’s shores to be aired globally is unflattering in the extreme for the regime. The tragedy is that CHOGM was the Rajapaksa regime’s great window of opportunity to put its house in order – not superficially with pinwheels and pretty pavements, but in a credible way that would help its case internationally going forward to March in Geneva, where a damning indictment on its rights record is expected from UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay.
In a nuanced, tongue-in-cheek open letter to Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma, UNP MP Mangala Samaraweera berates the high official for what he calls an ‘unholy alliance’ with the ruling regime in Colombo. “I wish you a pleasant stay in our beautiful and tortured island,” Samaraweera concludes his letter, calling on the Commonwealth to force Sri Lanka to uphold the values enshrined in the new Commonwealth Charter. The letter is Samaraweera’s last salvo, after months of waging war against CHOGM in Sri Lanka on account of the Rajapaksa Administration’s consistent flouting of Commonwealth values and principles.
As Commonwealth Heads of Government start arriving in the city over the next two days, gracious hospitality, warm welcomes and twinkling lights of the Chinese-built, lotus-shaped auditorium may compensate for some of which has been found wanting in their host in this past controversial year. Together with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, chair in office of the Commonwealth as of this weekend, they will pledge to uphold core values common to the organisation’s membership, values that define the grouping as committed democracies that uphold the liberties and rights of their citizenries. Others are also joined together this CHOGM week, in the ‘beautiful and tortured’ island of Sri Lanka. Maligned rights activists and defenders, oppressed and marginalised communities of the north and south, harassed local and foreign journalists will be united in their collective grim reality and the hushed whispers constantly ringing in their ears of a democracy in decline.
Courtesy Daily FT