By Mangala Samaraweera –
Ms. Navanethem Pillay, the UN high Commissioner for Human rights is currently in Sri Lanka and her visit has once more shined a spotlight on the appalling record of the Rajapaksa regime on protecting the rights of its own people.
The government and its cohorts take great pains to frame the human rights discourse as a devious instrument of the West used against developing countries such as our own. But recent incidents at Weliweriya, Deniyaya, Negombo, Katunayake, Welikada and Grandpass and the countless incidence of regime loyalists stamping on the rights of the common man have brought the human rights debate today much closer to home for us all.
Blinded by the jingoism propagated by the Rajapaksa administration, for the longest time citizens of this country were willing to look the other way on lofty matters such as human rights and international humanitarian law, mostly from sheer relief that the war had finally ended. Today, when the shock and horror of Weliweriya and Grandpass are yet to leave the national psyche, all Sri Lankans are beginning to realise that we share a common interest in protecting the inalienable rights we are all heir to, by virtue of being born a human.
Whether bombed in the North or shot in the South, every citizen of this country today requires protection from its own government. It is a common threat and in facing this threat, the citizenry of Sri Lanka is bound to pursue a common agenda – to protect ourselves from the evils of a regime on the rampage.
The danger signs are everywhere, if only we choose to see. The ruling troika of Rajapaksas have made a calculated and conscience decision to distance the country from international norms that advocate democracy, free society, civil liberties, good governance and the rule of law. Instead the regime is actively seeking out pariah states to establish and foster closer ties. Just as the Rajapaksa regime draws nepotistic, extremist, corrupt and violent elements together to form a grand alliance at home, it is actively seeking to be a part of anti democratic despotic global grouping. The recent State Visits undertaken by our President and the leaders and countries that are considered “friends” of this regime provide the clearest signs as to where Sri Lanka’s future lies. Democracy and freedom will form no part of that Rajapaksa desired future.
Even as High Commissioner Pillay arrived in Colombo for her fact finding mission, President Mahinda Rajapaksa took wing to Belarus, one of the last remaining vestiges of Soviet Era autocracy on the European continent. A nation whose President, a self- proclaimed dictator, holds sham elections, jails its political opponents and cracks down on the free media. It was the ideal place for President Mahinda Rajapaksa to denounce the United Nations Human Rights Council, an organisation set up by the governments of the world to protect the rights of all of humanity. Just prior to his visit to the last autocratic outpost of Europe, Mahinda Rajapaksa was a State guest of Uganda and Kazakhstan both ruled by dictators who believe in absolute power. In a strange parallel, both Presidents Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus subverted the constitutions of their countries to remove the two term limits on the presidency and allow them to contest an infinite number of times. Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010, used his artificially constructed two thirds majority in Parliament to afford himself the same autocratic privilege.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s family members are following his example. The all powerful Defence Secretary visited Sudan recently and pledged military assistance to that country. This is a country whose president has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes committed against his own people. We are reminded of the personal and cordial relations this regime had with Muamar Gaddafi the dictator of Libya and the military junta of Myanmar.
There is no deeper irony than the fact that with Gaddafi’s ouster and Myanmar’s slow but steady transition from military rule to democracy Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa regime has distanced themselves from these countries. The writing, as they say, is on the wall.
Sri Lanka has a new foreign policy. It will seek out and befriend despots. It will learn lessons from these autocracies. Lessons in stifling dissent, cowing a citizenry and shattering democratic institutions. In these Rajapaksa “friendly” countries, wealth is accumulated among a small coterie of loyalists while a great majority of the people suffer in poverty, governing regimes rule without any regard for democracy or the rule of law. Dynastic succession is preferred over free elections. Mostly dynastic succession is the norm rather than free elections. Free societies and civil liberties are denigrated as ideals and norms propagated by the neo-imperialist ‘West’. Is it surprising that it is in such countries that the Rajapaksa ruling family is finding new friends?
Having officially invited High Commissioner Pillay to Sri Lanka, not once but several times in the past few years, the Rajapaksa Administration has sought to vilify and embarrass her on the one hand and portray her to be a pro-LTTE invader into Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs on the other. Extremist allies of this regime have not balked at marking out Ms. Pillay’s ethnic credentials and using dangerous racial undertones that have become so common in post-war Sri Lanka to disqualify her from studying the injustices against the Tamil people of Sri Lanka on account of her being a Tamil by ethnicity. Apart from the pettiness and rank racism in these much publicised comments by Government coalition partners, it is clear that the ruling regime does not even possess a smidgen of the hospitality Sri Lankans are world famous for, that would call upon it to refrain from insulting a visiting international diplomat, much respected rights activist and former judge of the International Criminal Court while she is on Lankan soil. And despite all of the eyewash the Government is engaged in attempting to showcase progress in terms of investigating alleged human rights abuses during the war and implementing the recommendations of the LLRC, it is clear that the Rajapaksas are a long way away from changing their spots. On the eve of Ms Pillay’s visit, the home of a senior Journalists Mandana Abeywickrema was attacked and robbed by a group of men who claimed they were on a contract. What the police have tried to portray as a common robbery, media activists view as a more sinister move to dissuade Abeywickrema’s media activism and silence her expression. Two days before Ms. Pillay’s visit, a hitherto unknown authority blocked the independent website Colombo Telegraph, making it inaccessible to most Sri Lankans across virtually every network. The Colombo Telegraph blockade cannot be passed off as an attempt to censor scurrilous reporting on the web, simply because it is a well respected, widely read, ethical publication, that provides space for eclectic viewpoints. The Colombo Telegraph engages in truly investigative journalism and in depth reportage of issues that are often overlooked in the mainstream media and honours the right of reply and other principles of ethical reporting. For its commitment to the process of truthful journalism, Colombo Telegraph has won the distinction of becoming the only Sri Lankan website on the Guardian Select list of ethical, independent websites handpicked by the Guardian UK editorial board. That the Rajapaksa brethren have chosen to censor such a publication in Sri Lanka, days before the visit of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and three months before the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, speaks volumes about its true contempt for the international community and the ideals of democracy.
At a time when there is no war, the question must be asked, what is the government so afraid of? Why is a commitment to the protection of human rights so difficult to provide, especially when there is no terrorist threat? Is it not because the Government believes it needs to keep the “Weliweriya option” open in dealing with dissent? Is it not because the Rajapaksa administration’s inherently believes that the only worthwhile governance is the kind that gives rulers the untrammelled ability to shoot, kill and intimidate citizens, silence dissidents and the free press and wrest control of every institution that might one day pose a threat to its rule?
*Mangala Samaraweera – Former Foreign Minister