By Rajan Philips –
The Rajapaksa Government’s weeklong tryst with CHOGM is over. Well witted Sri Lankans, ever ready for political wordplay, have aptly dubbed it: Show-gm! CHOGM and Showgm provided quite a week of political medley that saw a Youth Forum in Hambantota, the island’s investment centre-of-gravity; a People’s Forum in Galle, whose old charm is now fading away in Hambantota’s new glitter, and where no ordinary people were to be seen but only government dignitaries who travelled all the way from Colombo perhaps in the new summit limos to welcome and listen to President Rajapaksa and Commonwealth Secretary General Kamlesh Sharma; a Business Forum in Colombo where President Rajapaksa again touted his government ‘robust hub-strategy’ for economic takeoff but omitted mentioning casinos as the only hub that the government might ill-advisedly create; a Ministerial Meeting for Small States including a lecture-lunch by External Affairs Minister GL Peiris struggling as always to sustain his relevance amidst all the goings on; and the plethora of committee meetings that are standard conference fare for scurrying bureaucrats.
There were also before-and-after birthdays. Prince Charles celebrated his 65th birthday before the summit in the company of all the members of Sri Lanka’s first family. After the summit comes President Rajapaksa’s 69th birthday; and the current occupants of the old Wijeywardene Lake House have already announced Pirith celebration and Sangika Dana to 69 chosen Bhikkus to mark the occasion. Not to be outdone, the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs decaled a National Flag Week from November 14 to November 19, calling on all households to fly the National Flag to observe, as the Ministry noted in a mouthful: “the Third Anniversary of the Second Term of the Presidency of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the CHOGM meeting”.
A sideshow that could become a politically significant development was the attempted disruption of the Human Rights Festival at Sri Kotha by government thugs. The festival was organized by the United Force (Samaga Balavegaya) of opposition parties at Sri Kotha, the UNP headquarters, after no other venue could be found in Colombo due to fear of government retaliation. The thugs even targeted the vehicle of Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe as it was trying to enter Sri Kotha premises. The upshot was that the new Leadership Council of the UNP decided to officially ‘boycott’ all Commonwealth ceremonies and events and instructed Ranil Wickremasinghe not to attend any of them. In the end, none of the opposition parties were present at the Commonwealth ceremonies and events. If the UNP Leadership Council were to play an equally assertive role in the future it could change the opposition political dynamic that has for so long been made dormant by whatever understanding that Ranil Wickremasinghe has been having with President Rajapaksa.
Island of two solitudes
The BBC reported during the week that what may have been planned by the government as a moment of postwar revival was seemingly turning into a public relations (PR) disaster. This is one-sided assessment. To see the other side one must read at least the headlines of the Daily News. The truth is not only in between but is also complicated. International observers and government supporters would have seen and heard what they were predisposed to see and hear and neither side would seem to have made any impact on the other. What was PR-disaster to the BBC was political victory for the government. The government certainly did not win over anyone new but neither did it lose any of its supporters. On the contrary, the government used the occasion to enthuse its supporters using non-alignment and anti-colonial rhetoric which although outdated is still an effective political opium. The detractors of the government, on the other hand, who wanted to isolate and humiliate the government, may feel that they got what they wanted but nothing has changed on the ground and in regard to future possibilities.
Sri Lanka is still an island of two solitudes and nothing illustrated this more strongly than the diametrically opposite motivations and manifestations of the protests in Jaffna and Anuradhapura. The point is not so much to evaluate between the two as to which is more existential and which is more orchestrated, as to emphasize the challenge of having to deal with both in moving forward. CHOGM did nothing in this regard and could not have done anything overtly significant in this regard. The boast of Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma, that “the pulse of the Commonwealth beats strongly in Sri Lanka”, is nothing more than a boast. More than the pulse of the Commonwealth, it was Mr. Sharma’s racing pulse that must have returned to normal during the week as the summit finally got underway after two years of uncertainty and anxiety ever since Sri Lanka was chosen to host the 2013 CHOGM.
As I have noted earlier, CHOGM Sri Lanka is a personal achievement for Kamalesh Sharma and a political victory for the Rajapaksa brothers and their government. Whether the achievement will be sustainable and victory will not be a pyrrhic one, remains to be seen. In the coming year, Mr. Sharma will have to deal with the threats to funding cuts by Britain and Canada, and as he struggles to keep his Secretariat solvent he may not get much support from his natal Indian government in the throes of an election. Although it was not his fault, Mr. Sharma suffered the ignominy of having his summit boycotted by his own Prime Minister.
For the government of Sri Lanka, the commonwealth aftermath would be like after a wedding massively gone overboard – huge debts to pay and old scores still to settle. The new status as Chair of the Commonwealth will make no difference to its tattered status before the UNHRC in Geneva. The litany over the LLRC recommendations will start all over again. There will be an air of poignancy in future discussions of the LLRC recommendations following the untimely death of the LLRC Chairman, Mr. C. R. de Silva. It says something of the man, given all the President’s other men, that having chaired the LLRC he declined the offer to be nominated as a tainted Chief Justice. The President graced the occasion of Mr. de Silva’s funeral, but the President and his government must know that the only way to honour the memory of C.R.de Silva is to implement fully the recommendations of his Commission. That is also the only way for the government to restore postwar normalcy and address the questions about war crimes.
The Cameron challenge
British Prime Minister David Cameron, after his historic visit to Jaffna and his formal meeting with President Rajapaksa, has thrown down the gauntlet that if Sri Lanka does not undertake and complete its own investigation of human rights violations during the war by March 2014, the British government will force the issue at the next UNHRC meeting in Geneva in March. President Rajapaksa is reported to have responded vigorously to David Cameron’s challenge during their meeting. The President’s message at the meeting and statements by government leaders afterwards are a defensive response to the British Prime Minister, reminding him of Britain’s old problem in Northern Ireland and its older colonial crimes in Sri Lanka.
While these are self-satisfying debating points, the fact of the matter is that it is not Britain that is facing international censures or UNHRC resolutions over Northern Ireland or any other internal matter. What is more, is harking back to Britain’s old colonial crimes tantamount to acknowledging and defending the Sri Lankan state’s current treatment of its own people – the Tamil and Muslim minorities, and the Sinhalese who do not agree with the misdoings of the Rajapaksa regime? Does old western colonialism justify new internal colonialism in independent Sri Lanka?
Another aspect to the government’s defensive response not only to Britain, but also to India and Canada is to dismiss Cameron’s criticism and India’s and Canada’s boycotts as political grandstanding to play to their domestic Tamil populations. The government’s dismissal of external criticisms is really its denial of its own internal problems and its reluctance to play to its own Tamil population. The best way to make Britain, Canada and India mind their own business is for the Sri Lankan government to mind its own internal business and deal with national minorities and political differences democratically and with justice and fairness. Until then external criticisms will continue and the months of March and September will become permanent biannual moments of agony in Geneva. If the Sri Lankan government does not move forward positively to work with the new NPC government and implement the LLRC recommendations, it will find itself even more isolated in 2014 in Geneva and even elsewhere.
The experience of the Commonwealth Summit could influence President Rajapaksa in two contrasting ways, and the choice is between the two is his. He could positively move forward, implement the LLRC recommendations, and work with the new NPC Administration. That would be the best response to Cameron’s challenge and boycotts by India and Canada. Alternatively, he could go backward intoxicated by his own nationalistic rhetoric and that of the others during the Commonwealth week. There is nothing wrong with nationalism and its rhetoric, provided that the President realizes sooner than later that the way forward for him, his government, and the country is to adopt the rhetoric and practice of democratic inclusiveness of all Sri Lankans, the tolerance of opposition, and term-limited governments. It would have been too much of an ask of the Commonwealth to bestow such enlightenment on the Sri Lankan President, but one would hope that his summit experience has been positively persuasive rather than negatively entrenching.