By Jehan Perera –
The one day visit of Indian National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon to Sri Lanka is revealing of the power structure in the country in relation to Indian priorities. He met with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The shortness of the visit made it imperative that choices had to be made about who was to be met, and that the three Rajapaksa brothers came first. They clearly hold the key to Sri Lanka’s present and future directions, at least in Indian eyes. The only other person to be met by the Indian troubleshooter was Tamil National Alliance leader R Sampanthan, which also gives an indication of Indian concerns with regard to Sri Lanka.
The Indian account of the meetings which appeared in the embassy website noted that recent developments, bilateral relations and areas of common concern were discussed. These included issues relating to resettlement of displaced persons and infrastructure development projects in the north and south in which India is assisting Sri Lanka on a significant scale, and also the contentious matter of clashes between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen. In addition there were more controversial matters not included in the official news release on the website. These included the demilitarization of the north, holding of provincial elections for the north and the implementation of the report of the Lessons Leant and Reconciliation Commission as resolved by the UN Human Rights Council.
The purpose of the Indian visit would seem to have been to give the government a forewarning of the challenges it was likely to encounter in the international arena in the coming months. The Indian role in providing crucial support to the US-sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in March this year came as a bitter surprise to the government. India’s softening of the US-sponsored resolution to make any international intervention in Sri Lanka conditional upon its acceptance by the Sri Lankan government failed to assuage Sri Lankan outrage. Nor was the fact that the resolution only called upon the government to implement the recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission a sufficient palliative to reduce the sense of betrayal. Over the past three months there is hardly any sign of any special effort taken by the government to implement the LLRC.
Contrary to any possible expectations on the part of the international community that voted in favour of the US-sponsored resolution, there is no sign that the government is prepared to bow to international pressure to do what it does not wish to do. The LLRC report written in the English language has still not been translated into the Sinhala and Tamil languages which are the two official languages of the country. Government spokespersons have come up with the absurd excuse that they do not have sufficient translators to handle the 388 page document. As for implementing the LLRC recommendations, the government is able to claim that it is committed to its implementation on the basis of its regular programmes of work in the areas of resettlement and development. But key sections of the report that call for a greater separation of powers and for adherence to the Rule of Law are not being given any attention.
The fact that Mr Menon met only with the President and his two brothers on the government side is an indicator of the concentration of power. Such a concentration of power is not in line with generally accepted principles of good governance in mature democracies. On occasion, government spokespersons have been known to try and justify the role of the Rajapaksa family in governance by pointing out to the Gandhi family in India and to the Clinton family in the United States. Particularly in third world countries a tradition of dynastic politics may be seen, in which son, daughter or wife succeeds a father who has become a great leader of that country. Sometimes it may be the case that the successor is a worthy leader, such as in the case of the Gandhi family.
An indicator of the problems associated with the Rule of Law is the manner in which the government cracked down on an opposition media website just prior to the Indian visit. The Sri Lanka Mirror website was one that was playing an important role in providing the general public with information that was unavailable in the mainstream print and electronic media. The government has sought to justify its arbitrary arrest of nine journalists working for the Sri Lanka Mirror (including the tea girl, initially) on the grounds that they were publishing anti government information. It has said that the website was “continuously publishing false and unethical news about celebrities and popular personalities, misleading international and local communities.”
The fate of the Sri Lanka Mirror and of its journalists will send a message to the country’s mainstream media, its owners and journalists, that there is a need to be cautious when reporting the news. This is a time when rumours and reports of corruption and abuse of power that reach all levels of society are dampening the morale of the general public. This is also a time when economic hardships are making themselves felt in a big way amongst the general public who would be resentful when they get to learn about allegations of corruption and excessive wealth in high places. But this is also a time when the government has decided to go to the people to get a fresh mandate from them. The government has prematurely dissolved three Provincial Councils and is to hold elections for them in September. From the perspective of those who seek election victory, suppressing news media that discredits and shows them in the worst possible light is politically advantageous.
In the face of the many problems it faces, the government’s strategy appears to be one of winning the forthcoming provincial elections in the North Central, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern provinces and reaffirming its support from the people. This will send out a message to the international and local communities that the government is a democratically elected and therefore legitimate one, whatever may be its other infirmities. The international community is generally deferential to the legitimacy of those governments that have been democratically elected. The willingness to hold elections and the ability to win them are taken as the best signs of a healthy democracy. The excessive centralization of power and the breakdown of the Rule of Law get are more difficult for the international community to assess. The easiest assessment is whether elections were held and whether the government won them.
The government may be right in believing that a strong show of electoral support, especially from the Eastern Province where the majority of voters are from the ethnic minorities, will be the best possible answer to those who seek to find fault with it on human rights and good governance-related issues. The problem is that these issues are not being resolved. They will continue to fester and generate greater and greater hatred and polarization within those who are treated unjustly. The recent speech to the British Parliament by Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has a special relevance to Sri Lanka at this time. She said: “If differences remain unresolved, if basic aspirations remain unfulfilled, there cannot be an adequate foundation for sustainable development of any kind – economic, social or political”. These words are applicable to Sri Lanka also.