When the world loses respect for Sri Lanka, certain consequences follow. Some may be minute and some graver but all are relatively unprecedented when assessed against the manner in which this country was once viewed in the community of nations.
We invite contempt from outside
This week, a visiting Canadian Member of Parliament’s insouciant remark during a guest lecture in Colombo that Canada’s courts have often rapped the Canadian government over its knuckles but that the Chief Justice of that country has not been arbitrarily impeached, had evidently touched his host, External Affairs Minister GL Peiris on the raw. Referring to this observation as ‘unwarranted and inappropriate’ during his closing remarks at the session, the Minister had stated moreover that ‘I would not have dreamt of making such a remark if I was visiting your country’ (Daily Mirror, March 23, 2013).
Certainly such a comment by a visiting parliamentarian would have raised eyebrows in the days when Sri Lanka had a sustainable foreign policy, a functional democratic system and able diplomats representing it not merely with empty defensive rhetoric but substantive skill. Demonstrably Sri Lanka is now lacking in all these respects.
Consequently government representatives must now learn to, as colloquially put, ‘grin and bear it’ when such comments are made by visitors. And while the Minister’s dreams are, of course, his own business, his assurance that he would refrain from making such a blithely carefree remark about the Canadian government if he had been visiting that country, is a classic non-sequitur. Simply put, it is beyond the bounds of conceivable possibility that any Canadian government would humiliate and insult its own Chief Justice, throw him or her out of office using military power and attack the judicial system so savagely leaving it to die, bleeding in the gutter as it were, so as to attract that same type of remark by any visitors there.
On the other hand, Sri Lanka has done precisely that, without remorse and without compunction. Consequently as offensive as such comments made by a visitor may be from a host country’s point of view, they remain unfortunately but irrefutably true. Aggrieved protests full of sound and fury but signifying nothing, do not detract from that fact.
Solidarity for ‘principled’ countries
These are minor issues though they indicate very well the negative manner in which Sri Lanka is increasingly come to be perceived by the world. The hardening of attitude by members of the United Nations Human Rights Council at this week’s passing of the 2nd United States led resolution on Sri Lanka and India’s extraordinary reference to local mechanisms of justice needing to ‘satisfy the international community’ says volumes for the dangerous path of isolation and eventual international rejection that the current present political leadership is taking the country heedlessly on.
Amidst the dramas, there were exquisitely funny moments as well as for example, when Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva thanked nations who voted against the US Resolution as taking part in a ‘rare moment of solidarity for principled countries.’ Granted, there is nothing principled about superpowers raking smaller countries over the coals for international crimes while escaping unscathed themselves. As observed by the inimitable documentary film maker Michael Moore who has distinguished himself in conducting scathing exposes of successive US governments from arms lobbies to the gun lobbies, US policy makers such as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney who oversaw multifarious abuses being committed in Iraq and Afghanistan may well be termed as the world’s foremost war criminals. The impunity with which they acted, as Moore terms, only encouraged tinpot dictators in other countries to think that they too can follow suit.
Granted therefore, the wheels of international justice grind discriminatorily. But such realpolitik which determines that powerful countries are not held accountable for their actions has always been the way of the world. The political leadership of smaller countries who behave in that same abusive manner towards its own citizens cannot bleat constantly that it is unfair for them to be held to account. The ebb and flow of international politics makes those arguments extremely flimsy as any first year student of international relations would know.
Is this government ‘principled’?
That being said, when the country’s Geneva representative lauds those who went against the US resolution as being ‘principled’, this same argument can be turned dexterously around towards the Sri Lankan government itself.
What is principled pray, about using the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission as blatant cover for the government’s own excesses and then after an unexpectedly critical report emerges, try to bluff its way out in respect of implementation of even that minimum? Where is the report of the 2006 Udalagama Commission of Inquiry which the LLRC recommended, should be released to the public? Has the government lost it among its files? And after more than six years of feet dragging, are we supposed to applaud when we are told that the killings of hapless Tamil students in Trincomalee is before a non-summary hearing, clearly indicating the lack of priority accorded to it?
Then again, what is principled about treating a country’s Chief Justice worse than a common criminal? What is principled about the militant Bodhu Bala Sena whipping up the flames of religious hatred against the Muslim community in Sri Lanka? This extremism is as equally deadly as the pro-LTTE extremism that has resulted in the beating up of pilgrims and Buddhist priests in Tamil Nadu.
Following in the wake of old Myanmar style isolation
But over and above, general chaos in government predominates. The striking absence of a coherent voice on matters as important as the UNHRC vote was seen when on the day after the vote was passed, we had one Cabinet Minister thanking India for (presumably) diluting the US resolution. At the same time, Sri Lanka Secretary to the Ministry of Defence who is indisputably far more powerful than any Cabinet Minister, declared his deep disappointment with India for voting for the resolution, quite apart from insensibly announcing in the full throated roar of his fury that every Tamil visitor from Tamil Nadu stands the risk of being arrested at the Katunayake International Airport (see LankaTruth, 21 March 2013).
The comparisons with the old Myanmar are almost irresistible. At one point, Myanmar or former Burma was the foremost rice producing country in that region. Now as it emerges shamefacedly into the modern world from the ruins of international rejection and economic disasters at the hands of a military leadership, we seem to be treading down that same path. While the majority of the Sinhalese populace mingle around, sheep like in their slavishly mindless adoration of fripperies such as a second international airport, parks, roads and luxury hotels built in the main, on borrowed overseas money and as state banks shake beneath the massive weight of loans given to the government on unsustainable projects, it is not the Rajapaksas who are at fault.
Veritably, it is ourselves who are to blame for failing to recognise the truly calamitous consequences of these choices that are being made in our name.