Government claims to be free of international pressure, but can it contain domestic pressures?


by Rajan Philips

"Sri Lanka is now free of international pressure," Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was quoted as saying in the headline to a newspaper story about Sri Lanka’s agreement in Geneva to co-sponsor a modified resolution initially drafted by the US. Mr. Wickremesinghe’s understandable claim is that the new government has been able to remove the objectionable parts of the earlier draft and change it into a friendly resolution. Almost at the same time, if not slightly earlier, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, issued a statement welcoming Sri Lanka’s co-sponsoring the modified resolution in Geneva. The government, from its standpoint, is claiming that it has delivered on what it undertook to accomplish in the January and August elections. But that is not going to silence its critics and Rajapaksa loyalists, who have already gone hyperbolic in their denunciation of the new resolution and the report on Sri Lanka that the resolution addresses. Hence the question, would it be as easy for the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe (SW) government to deal with its domestic detractors, as it is to persuade its western allies as well as New Delhi?

In one usual rhetorical overkill, the government is being accused of becoming kanganis welcoming the return of the planter raj. In case the local metaphors are not enough, the epithets of Malcolm X and Franz Fanon have also been extracted from one’s childhood reading to embellish old age polemics. To a more Johnny-come-lately anti-western commentator, Sri Lanka under the yahapalanaya government has become isolated and stands alone in the comity of nations as an appendage to the west while abandoning the nostalgic family of the non-aligned. While these criticisms are untenable as arguments, they are more than capable of triggering political mischief and tripping up the government in the contest for public support between elections in general, and more particularly on the outcomes of the UNHRC sessions in Geneva.

It is rather amusing to hear a newly vociferous government critic say that regardless of what the new government decides in Geneva, it is the democratic choice of the people that should ultimately prevail. On the contrary, a new government representing Sri Lanka went to Geneva precisely because of the democratic choice the people made as recently as in August and not long ago in January. By the same token, it could be argued that the Sri Lankan people democratically rejected, both in January and in August, whatever decisions the Rajapaksa government has been making in regard to Sri Lanka’s UNHRC problem in Geneva. Now the former President is calling for a flat out rejection of the Report on Sri Lanka, while his loyalists are calling the government’s co-sponsorship of the resolution on the report a sell-out of Sri Lanka. The government, on the other hand, is claiming that what it is doing in Geneva is what it has been telling the people at the two elections and in between, and that it has rescued the country from its international isolation under the Rajapaksas.

Two sides of the debate

There are two sides to this domestic debate. One is about the understanding of the external compulsions behind the Geneva reports and the resolutions on Sri Lanka. The other is about the alignments of political forces and vested interests within Sri Lanka in relation to the goings on in Geneva and their outcomes. To take the domestic alignments first, there is no question about the ‘ethnic disagreement’ about the ‘horrific facts’ of the war and its aftermaths that I highlighted last week. But those who claim to speak to these disagreements have their own agendas. In addition to President Rajapaksa’s political and forensic agendas, many in his entourage bear deep antipathies to Ranil Wickremesinghe, Mangala Samaraweera, not to mention Chandrika Kumaratunga. Much of the invective against the government’s approach in Geneva appears to be the result of the antipathy to Mr. Samaraweera. Minister Samaraweera is no slouch when it comes to inviting unnecessary detractions, but the positions he takes as the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka should not become vulnerable to the antipathies that his detractors have against him.

As it happens with every other political issue, Geneva has divided the Sri Lankan diplomatic and political class into infighting sects, riven by personal jealousies, fights over funding and career ambitions. Similarly infighting sectarianism is equally present among the Tamils, albeit writ large on a global map. No one can stop the infighting and the verbal crossfires across the ethnic divide, especially in the age of the internet when every stupid comment is assured of instant circulation. What can be done and must be done is to expose the falsity of their claims that are often used to hide the true purpose of their interventions. That brings me to the understanding of the external compulsions behind Sri Lanka’s Geneva ordeals.

As I noted earlier, the critics of the government have drawn deep from the old and outdated rhetoric of anti-imperialism and non-alignment. This rhetoric is neither helpful to understanding Sri Lanka’s international situation nor to finding answers to its national questions. Over 30 years of war and international involvement, Sri Lanka has developed its own specific dynamic in its relationships with India, the West, and the rest of the world including China. It cannot arbitrarily and abruptly extricate itself from these relationships. If it would have been possible, the Rajapaksas would have done it, not for any particularly altruistic patriotic reasons, but for the entrenchment of their own power. The international isolation and stalemate they created was part of the reason for their electoral defeats at home.

An important part of this dynamic is the growing international movement for human rights. Contrary to common perceptions, human rights are less a weapon that western governments wield over weaker countries and more an instrument that western human rights organizations use to hold their own governments accountable in foreign policy. In practical terms, notwithstanding all the valid arguments about historical, political and moral incongruities and asymmetries, Sri Lanka has got caught in the global project for achieving international human rights accountability. Western governments are under pressure not only from Tamil diaspora groups whom they can ignore if they want, but also from their own well established human rights organizations. At the same time, as I have noted earlier, Sri Lanka is almost unique as a recipient country for international oversight in addressing human rights issues, because of its divided population – the Sinhalese, many of whom do not welcome any international involvement, and Tamils most of whom would like to see some international involvement.

This internal division is well illustrated by the two extreme responses to the Report of the UN Human Rights Commissioner from Mahinda Rajapaksa, former President and now parliamentarian, and CV Wigneswaran, Northern Province Chief Minister. The former has called for a flat out rejection of the report and the latter its full implementation. There is considerable political middle ground between the two extreme positions. To reformulate the question in the title of this article, can the government take control of the middle ground, or is it going to be stuck in the middle and caught in the cross-fire? The government’s difficulties and dilemmas are obvious and there is no easy way out of the messy legacy of the Rajapaksas.

It is often suggested that by vigorously pursuing a political solution, the government can somewhat blunt the pressure for judicial accountability. A necessary qualification to this approach is that the situation today is far different from what it was when a successful agreement between political leaders, such as the B-C Pact, would have ended the matter. It is different because of the continuing sufferings of the victims of war. They need to be tended to first. From that standpoint, the government’s proposed Office for Missing Persons and the Office for Reparation are long overdue. Establishing these offices and getting them to work well will do much greater good than arguing about hybrid courts.

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