A presidential election at the height of the tourist season?

An interview with Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu,


By Maheen Senanayake

There was something very light about him. He was a big man but he seemed weightless as his very articulated motions appeared very fast. He sat, checked his laptop, picked up a cigarette, lit it and sat back all in one great stream of rapid motion. I missed the first few words as I attempted to recover from the atomic gestures. Affable and sharp his every word seemed to carry meaning - resplendent as they were with a variety of innuendos. This was going to be a big one. He had framed behind him posters not so well disposed to him. He had eloquently turned them into iconic pieces of art. He couldn’t care less.

How do you see the Mahinda Rajapaksa’s phase in our history?

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory in 2005 and thereafter the military defeat of the LTTE, I think, has culminated in a series of progressive actions that is a great danger to this country. This country, historically like India was not a sort of violent, boisterous, indisciplined parliamentary democracy. Mahinda Rajapaksa has literally turned it into a more East-Asian model – a populist authoritarian model and over prioritization of economic development.

So you pre-suppose there is actual economic development?

To be fair to him the point of this is that although they’ve made money hand over fist on infrastructural projects - that it has happened cannot be denied - it is to some benefit. So in that respect give the devil his due.

That is an over prioritization because there is no sense whatsoever of any room or role or space for rights The notion of rights is considered as irrelevant at best and subversive at worst.

Let’s go back to over prioritization. Can you elaborate on this please?

You are right, let me qualify that. It is over-prioritization of a particular notion of economic development which is first and foremost of course entirely designed and driven and implemented with very little consultation (and) participation of those whose lives are immediately affected. As I said, the other one is that rights are seen as subversive at worst and irrelevant at best.

In addition to that of course what you have is either infrastructural development plus tourism. The other side of the economy is tourism. The idea is that we will have tourism round the clock; we have the East coast, we have the Southern coast and it seems to be going for the mass tourist whereas my understanding of tourism is that the type of tourism that has been successful in this country and seems to be the way to go in the world is the more niche market boutique hotel. This is where people pay for their privacy. The big three and four star hotels become problematic because there is environmental damage, there is the pressure of the local population and I think some of them already have not got the kind of numbers that they were expecting and are changing hands because they are no longer economically viable and sustainable.

What are we talking about? As far as tourism is concerned it’s a two million figure or something on those lines by 2016. We are just over the million mark. Who is coming here? At the end of the day it’s a good question to ask. A lot of people complain that we overprice ourselves. Secondly, if the argument is that the Western tourist is no longer coming because of recession and all of those problems, then we are looking to India, China and to the Middle East.

I am told that according to the current prices a middle class Indian could jump on a plane and go to Bangkok live in a clean three or four star hotel, eat off the streets of Bangkok and shop till they drop and go back home quite happily. For the Chinese we are building all these casinos. And looks like all the consequences with regard to the Jathika Chinthanaya, and that kind of thing doesn’t apply in that case.

Then if you look at the question of the Middle East, If you are not going to take the Halal certification and all of that seriously (he uses all of that seriously) , who is the self respecting Arab who is going to come and eat in a restaurant if he doesn’t know whether the meat is halal or not?

Then who on earth would call a presidential election at the height of the tourist season and one in which they themselves cannot deny that there is a great possibility and if not a large probability of violence in the course of their campaign.

Why do you think they would call a presidential election at the height of the tourist season?

I don’t know. Is this astrology? Two or three months ago we said that anyone with a foreign passport going up north had to – first it was permission and now we are told - inform the ministry of defense. This is ridiculous. Why would a tourist want to come to this country and inform the ministry of defense where the hell they are going?

Is this an attempt to target the Tamil diaspora? What do you think is driving this (I pause) what shall we call it, regulation? What is the story with regard to the restrictions on travel to the north?

I suspect this was initially targeting the Tamil diaspora and anyone else who was going up north to collect information to send to Geneva. There is a paranoia.

Let’s come back to Colombo. Nominations have been concluded. A date has been set for the elections. You are in the business of monitoring elections. What is your take on what has happened so far?

(He lights his secondcigarette. This was a fumigation ceremony reminiscent of the dialectics of peace conference. (- go check the film clips on you tube and see for yourself if you do not believe me).

What we have seen so far, in a sense is not peculiar to the Rajapaksa regime, in that when you have an election we find that the first signs are that police officers are being transferred. That has happened here. We have had the transfer of a number of police officers as well as a change in the army command in the North, which I also consider to be worrying, which could well be significant and Udaya Perera has been transferred and now we have Jagath Alwis. So you have also flagrant abuse of state resources that every regime has done; that I think these people have raised to a fine art.

You have the clustering of the city with cutouts, hoardings and posters, I mean I was reminded of ‘the charge of the light brigade’ (a poem for those not too disposed towards literature). In front of me was this huge hoarding of Mahinda Rajapaksa, I looked to my left there was about five and I looked to my right and there was about five, fortunately there was nothing behind.

(I couldn’t contain my laughter. This was almost lecture like spiced with pure and simple humour.)

It’s absurd. Its ridiculous he said. Use of vehicles, use of state resources, in terms of money and personnel and all of that is quite flagrant. Then we also have incidents of violence where lower down the pecking order political supporters engage in violence, because they are engaging in violence in order to curry favour with those on top. This is what is supporting a culture of violence that is embedded as far as the political culture of the country is concerned. So everyone is busy trying to show that they are trusted and very much one of their reliable lieutenants of ‘His Majesty’ as it were. So threat and intimidation is going to be a key ingredient in the spectre of election violence.

How do you think violence will affect your work and how will your work bear on this type of violence?

We have been doing this since 1997 and we have had instances when monitors have been abused and attacked on the ground by political party supporters. So we have to send them out with insurance and all of that. But we continue to do this and we do this because the citizenry at large are interested in reporting actual violence and I must say we get a fair number of reports from people who are out there and tell us that ‘such and such is happening’.

At the end of the day ‘elections’ are the basic mechanism of choice and change in a functioning democracy; people have to decide, they should be as best informed, to make those informed and intelligent decisions; on the other hand, violence let’s say in the instance of someone deciding to go and break someone’s neck is an individual decision. So what we do as far as possible is we ‘name and shame’.

We say that it is alleged that such and such a person did such and such. We are not the police or the judiciary so we cannot convict, but what we can say is that there are allegations against such and such people.

What is your network’s relationship with the policing arm which essentially is the Sri Lanka police?

Every time we do this we write to the Commissioner of Elections (He is lighting another cigarette as he settles again in his chair which by now he has pushed as far as the wall behind him) and ask for his co-operation and we also ask for the co-operation of the police and the election secretariat. Over the years they have been very cooperative so far as they have allowed us to contact the police stations and the Colombo headquarters. So in a sense they have given us support and cooperation. There have been instances depending on who the OIC of the police station is and the political pressure upon him from the local bodies which had resulted in things not working out like that but, by and large, we have had cooperation from the police with the Election Commissioner recognizing us to monitor and observe the elections. We take that letter to the police and show them that we have permission to do so.

What response are you attempting to elicit through the election monitoring process?

On the elections at large, the whole rationale is that the public, the voter, should be better informed of what is happening on the ground. They should know who is engaging in violence and for what purpose. Secondly, this is being done to strengthen the hand of the authorities who are in charge of the conduct of the elections so that they can take proper action.

Thirdly we have also gone to the Supreme Court, and asked them to give orders in terms of what is possible and what is not possible under election law. I must say that previous Election Commissioners have been appreciative of those kinds of efforts, but essentially it is a naming and shaming exercise and it is us underpinning and re-enforcing the institutions and processes of the electoral democracy of the country. There may well be voters in our country who may have seen our reports and have said, well such a party or candidate seems to be indulging in such and such more and ‘we do not’ or ‘want to’ vote for them. These reports of the monitoring and observing organizations also feed into the policy and opinion making of the international community.

Why are you - Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu in this, what does Paikiasothy get out of this?

Why am I in it? He asks himself aloud.

(I am right. He lights up again – he makes chain smoking look very easy)

He pushes himself back. Why I am in it is very simply for this reason. That as citizens of this country we have rights and we have duties, I think public service is tremendously important. I think protecting and re-enforcing the democracy in this country is very important. So now I am part of this institution that has pledged to do that.

Personally for me our country has regressed from being a democratic and more decent society that we were three or four decades ago; not that we were perfect but we need to push ahead in restoring the institutions and processes of the country.

How would you describe yourself?

In terms of? he asks questioningly.

‘Anyway you like,’ I say

He bursts into laughter.

I am a citizen of this country (drags the smoke in, deep, real deep. He exhales. ) "I am a citizen of this country who wants to live in a decent and democratic society. I think there are a lot of injustices. There is a huge democracy deficit and I think we really need to bridge it.

While we need development and economic prosperity history records that if we don’t have the software as it were of democratic governance, it is not going to succeed, it’s always going to be on a flimsy foundation.

What are your interests?

Well my interest is to see in Sri Lanka a liberal democratic society, that represents the aspirations of all its peoples (he emphasizes the plural) in terms of its constitution architecture, in terms of its institutions and processes of governance.

How many people do you have as observers in terms of head count?

There are over 150 polling divisions in this country. We will station at least one monitor for each polling district for the duration of the campaign. In some cases because of the geographical spread, we may have more than one. At the headquarters, as it were, we will have project co-ordinators and assistant coordinators, so that when the information comes in there is further corroboration in terms of further verification that has to be done. Then there are people who are dealing with the media – print, electronic as well as on-line media.

So altogether during the campaign there will be about 200. On election day, hitherto, and I have no reason to suspect it would not be the case this time too, the Election Commissioner gives us permission ( he coughs, repeatedly – a reaction to the smoke I wonder – naah.. he looks like he has already tamed the smoke) to station monitors permanently in the polling centres. We have done this over the last three to four elections.

He gives PAFFREL and CMEV the permission to station monitors in the polling stations. So on election day we will have about 4,200 working on observation and monitoring.

Are these people paid?

They are given a per diem for food, travel on election day and communication.

How are you funded? This is always the basis of some allegation or other.

The first point is that unfortunately there is absolutely no tradition in Sri Lanka of funding democracy, governance, human rights work locally. So then we have to rely on foreign funding. On bi-lateral donors and that is from where we get most of our funds. So for election monitoring we have traditionally received funds from USAID, Candian CIDA and Swedish SIDA, Australian, German, Japanese and a host of other donors. So it’s really a variety of sources.

Can you explain tome who ‘bi-lateral’ donors are?

They have to channel funds to civil society on the basis of agreements and Memorandums of Understanding that their governments have signed with the government of Sri Lanka. So if you take the instance of the USAID, they function in this country on the basis of an agreement that the US government and the Sri Lanka Government have signed.

How transparent are you?

We are transparent to our donours who will require financial and narrative reports including audited accounts; and we are transparent to the government of Sri Lanka in that CPA which is registered in terms of its legal persona as a not-for-profit company. So we are registered with the Registrar of Companies. That requires that every year we give them our annual audited report plus a report of each of our activities.

Any final thoughts on the elections?

For me this election is very crucial for a number of reasons.

From the fifties onwards this kind of boisterous formal democratic functions - all beautiful and all - has been growing unlike in India in the subcontinent which has been committed to institutions and processes of parliamentary democracy. Now this has got a battering over the years. I think this is probably the greatest threat, because what you have got is a dynastic project and State capture by the family headed by a populist authoritarian figure underpinned by his personal popularity – probably the most popular politician at one level. Now under the Rajapaksa regime there is no space for civil society. Rights are irrelevant at best, subversive at worst, transformed into what we called the text book East Asian model. For the first time in our history we have a military which is a major actor in politics as well as the economy. ‘It’s the Military Incorporated’.

This is new to Sri Lanka. We have had this democratic tradition since 1931 and we were the first non-white colony to have universal franchise.

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