Politics for a purpose

By Lankathilaka

Sri Lanka seems to be undaunted in the face of an imminent threat of a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council which may call on the country to address accountability issues.

Accountability issues concerning Sri Lanka since the end of the war in 2009, hangs over her like the sword of Damocles. There has also been a respite from time to time, especially when the “Yahapalanaya” government was in power. The Yahapalanaya government headed by the UNP co-sponsored the resolution, diluting its fervour to a larger extent.

Sri Lanka’s strength appears to be China and Russia who wield veto power at the UN Security Council and are likely to intervene to salvage the country from an apparent political quagmire internationally. Hence no Security Council initiative could thwart Sri Lanka at UN forums, a sigh of relief for the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime.

Nevertheless, the West, backed by the United States and India, may not take it as it comes and loosen its grip.  This will be the case especially after the United States resumed its leadership in advocating for human rights with the lapse of the Trump years of administration.

The effort at this juncture by the sponsors of the UNHRC resolution is to get Sri Lanka to formally agree to it, albeit with a much watered-down version.  By doing this they have also incurred the wrath of their Tamil diaspora and the Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka have told them that the resolution falls below their expectations.  Adamant Sri Lanka stays aloof to all the suggestions. The United Kingdom meanwhile has also reacted but less harshly by refusing to delete the reference to the Covid -19 burial issue-the principal demand of the Muslim community of Sri Lanka, which has now gone beyond our shores.    

All in all, Sri Lanka is poised to face a tough bargain or defeat but remains unfazed amidst growing pressure from the West. Western nations were busy canvassing to solicit the support of Asian countries to compel Sri Lanka to respect concerns of accountability.

Within Sri Lanka, Canada and Britain played a lead role to muster the support of several countries for the resolution. Britain’s High Commissioner met with the South African High Commissioner to present a case based on empirical data against Sri Lanka.

When the Canadian High Commissioner’s meeting with the Bangladeshi envoy leaked out to the media, there were ripples and hiccups in the diplomatic circles that prompted the Canadian High Commissioner to pose a pertinent query on Twitter. He asked whether they (the diplomatic community) were under surveillance by the government agencies. The blunt answer was “NO” and that it came from the Police spokesman.

This matter was the subject of discussion among the Asian ambassadors two weeks ago during the banquet hosted by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to honour visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The Maldives ambassador was quite clear in his take and said that they would throw their weight behind Sri Lanka. Most of the other Asian diplomats were non-committal and kept mum on this intriguing question concerning Sri Lanka.

The government’s effort was to gauge its influence among the global community and to contest the UNHRC resolution with absolute patience, mustering adequate support to defeat it. Countries that objectively support non-interference into internal matters agreed to toe the line with Sri Lanka, but the number appeared to be insufficient.

At one point in time, the government was optimistic they could muster adequate support to defeat the resolution. Sri Lankan envoys in many countries have crusaded on behalf of the Rajapaksa administration to defend the moral high ground they have taken on the matter. The dictum on which the canvassing took place was that there should be no external meddling in internal issues. However, the numbers have fallen short and stand still at 21. The government has now changed its course to explore a second option by turning to superpowers China and Russia to overcome any difficult situation arising from the resolution.

India and Japan are two other countries that have expressed their reservations about Sri Lanka’s trajectory on human rights compliances. India, not too picky about human rights observances, has a bone to pick with Sri Lanka about the denial of the Eastern Container Terminal development with an Indian conglomerate. Even after many weeks since Sri Lanka reneged on the trilateral MOU with India and Japan to develop the ECT, India’s position is unwavering. Sri Lanka’s substitute peace offering to India is the West Container Terminal, which was sealed with a decision last week by the Sri Lankan Cabinet.  Point 19 in the routine circular which is issued by the GoSL following the weekly Cabinet meeting said that ‘ Cabinetapproval has been granted on 01. 02. 2021 to develop the West Container Terminal of the Colombo South Port as a public-private limited company in collaboration with the Sri Lanka Ports Authority and parties nominated by the Japanese and Indian governments and also to appoint a Cabinet appointed Negotiating Committee and a Project Committee to evaluate the proposal in this regard.  Accordingly, the Build, Operate and Transfer plan by the Negotiating Committee has been forwarded to the High Commission of India and the Embassy of Japan requesting them to nominate investors. The proposal presented by Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Limited (APSEZ Consortium) has been approved by the Indian High Commission’.  India was quick to deny the claim. Her stance is that the GoSL is taking an investment approach to developing the WCT whereas with the ECT it was to be done within the framework of trilateral cooperation.  However, since the Terminals are a bilateral issue, India was cautious enough to raise other concerns such as the long-enduring Tamil problem when it came to the resolution.

India’s position is that Sri Lanka should implement the 13th amendment to the constitution fully to ensure reasonable devolution of power to the Tamil speaking minorities in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

Besides, Sri Lanka’s invitation to Myanmar’s military junta to participate in BIMSTEC will also be viewed dimly by the international community.  

Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunewardene’s letter addressed to the Foreign Minister of the junta U Wunnia Muang Lwin, extended diplomatic niceties. ‘It is with great pleasure that I invite your Excellency to participate at the 17th Ministerial meeting of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), to be held in the afternoon of April 1st 2021 preceded by a special senior official meeting on 31st March 2021, virtually in Colombo’, the letter said.

Justifying the stand taken by the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry, the Secretary to the Ministry Admiral (Rtd) Jayanath Colombage told the Hindu newspaper that “our invitation to the incumbent Foreign Minister of Myanmar is only within the ambit of BIMSTEC. Unless BIMSTEC expels Myanmar, Sri Lanka has no mandate to exclude them’.

Seeking to make a distinction between Colombo’s BIMSTEC summit invite to Myanmar and its stance on the junta takeover Mr Colombage said the government was yet to decide on its position on the latter.  “We are busy battling the Geneva [UN Human Rights Council] session, so we have kept that decision in abeyance,” he said.

‘Myanmar political activists have condemned the invitation of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister to the illegitimate military regime of Myanmar to attend the BIMSTEC while we are in a deadly crisis’, one social media post said.  

It further said that no one in the world had recognisedthe military junta except for Sri Lanka. Hundreds and thousands of social media activists have condemned Sri Lanka’s stand.

Apart from these issues, questions relating to human rights and the suffering of the people owing to the government’s short-sighted policies were discussed at various fora on many occasions. The women’s demonstration on the 8th of March was one such event where there was an attempt by women activists to highlight the grievances of the working woman.

However, they were interrupted and the demonstration was dispersed. The government had its way. Policemen were accused of beating women including the elderly to break up a peaceful march.

Elsewhere in Parliament, Shanakiyan RagulRajaputhiran Rasamanickam of the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi echoed his party’s concerns over human rights issues plaguing not only the Tamils but the Sinhalese and Muslims as well.

He accused the government of creating a monster out of the UNHRC by projecting a fake image of it as an outfit that is against Sri Lanka and is all out to persecute the government. He said that these assumptions are not true and that human rights are for all without distinction among race or nationalities. He pointed out how human rights and the economy are interlinked and that without respecting and adhering to human rights, it would be a Herculean task to achieve economic progress. He explained that our youth long to go to western countries because there is a democratic space with human rights taking precedence over everything.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Norwegian ambassador Trine Eskedal when she addressed the International Women’s Day celebrations organised by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. She stressed that “in times of crisis, leadership is important and world leaders should be cautious not to use the pandemic to violate human rights and to shrink the democratic space”.

Nevertheless in Colombo, the long arm of the law created some sort of chaos and panic among women on women’s day. They harassed a group of women participating in a demonstration demanding that authorities protect the rights of the working woman.

Another issue that has bedevilled the government for the past two years is the carnage in Catholic and Christian Churches and a few hotels on Easter Sunday in 2019. Through various means at its disposal, the government is trying to find answers to the rather complex questions raised by the Catholic Church.  Efforts by the Catholic Church to force the government to reveal the architects behind the attacks drew a blank. The Archbishop of Colombo expressed his anxieties on numerous occasions through the media.

Although the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry dealt with many issues it failed to identify the mastermind behind the killings that shocked the whole country and cost the UNP its government in the election that followed.

However, there are reservations about the government holding back several volumes of the CoI on the pretext of its sensitive nature.

Not even the Attorney General has had access to the entire report which is being studied by the Security Council, the high profile government outfit that scrutinizes such matters before they are swept under the carpet.

The Catholic Church’s desire to pin down the brains behind the attacks figured in Parliament prominently when MP M. A Sumanthiran explained the necessity of bringing them to justice. ‘The Christian faith always perpetuates forgiveness even for the perpetrators of heinous crimes,’ he said, stressing that forgiveness and justice are two different aspects and underlined the need to bring the perpetrators to book.

‘His eminence who acknowledged in the past that the system in place including the judiciary is capable of handling our affairs lost his patience in barely two years and is in the process of seeking the help of the world community but in our case, we are still waiting after twelve years for answers on accountability issues which emanates from the joint agreement signed between then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa and UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki-Moon’.

What all these religious dignitaries and parliamentarians were talking about was the right of the people to know, which eventually boils down to human rights of which the Archbishop held a different view a few moons ago.

Archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith in his homily from the pulpit at St Mathew’s Church Ekala remarked that human rights had become the religion among the western nations, throwing an indirect criticism on human rights crusaders. The sentiments expressed by the Archbishop met with stiff resistance by then Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera

Samaraweera tweeted, ‘The need for human rights was an outcome of the marauding religious zealots of the Inquisition and the Crusades, where non-believers were massacred en-bloc.

Ironically, the Archbishop himself has to talk about the international community which means in other words western values coupled with human rights. Human rights and equanimity are part and parcel of great faiths though practised according to the whims and fancies of individuals of the modern world.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa nevertheless takes the Easter Sunday carnage to a different level.  His deliberate remarks at the Girbawa synagogue puts the blame squarely on the Ranil Wickremesinghe government for its abject failure. At the same time, he did not forget to shield President Sirisena saying that everybody is trying to blame Sirisena while shirking their responsibility. The President argued “as you may be aware, the government in power in 2015 removed the executive powers vested in the President by introducing the 19th amendment to the Constitution. The President aimed at two birds by casting just one stone, shielding Sirisena and finding fault with the Wickremesinghe government for broad basing democratic values through the 19th amendment and justifying his (Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s) cause to arrogate powers to himself through the 20th amendment while annulling the 19th amendment. The President’s broadside created ripples among the opposition benches after Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasaopenly said that they would take responsibility for the attacks if they had to since they were in government at that stage. UNP’s General Secretary Range Bandaragrabbed the opportunity to ask the government to file an action against Sajith if he takes responsibility for the Easter carnage. It appears that Range Bandara’s remark was a puerile one which no one would want to take serious note of.

Meanwhile, former Minister Ashok Abeysinghe during a meeting in his home town Kuurnagala which was meant for his party members came out with a revelation that landed him in hot water. Several government parliamentarians trotted off to the Criminal Investigation Department with a complaint against the former Minister which prompted the CID to record a statement for five long hours.

Politics are such in Sri Lanka that it is rather difficult to fathom its intricate nature. The confusion on the CoIreport on the Easter Sunday attack was further compounded when the report was referred to another ministerial committee for a study.

The head of the committee Chamal Rajapaksa had a word with Minister G.L Peiris when the latter inquired about the fate of President Sirisiena against whom the Commission has recommended instituting criminal proceedings. The casual reference took place at the banquet hosted by the Prime Minister to welcome Imran Khan.

‘I am also trying to explore a way out of this problem for Sirisena’, Chamal Rajapaksa is reported to have said. G.L Peiris, a legal pundit, had said there could be some relief since Sirisena has been found fault for not acting according to advice. Peiris is also on record saying that there is no intention to ban the Bodu Bala Sena as per the CoI’s recommendation which indicates the government’s intention to play politics with the report by picking on people to be prosecuted according to their whims and fancies.

After the unwavering stand taken by the Catholic Church on the Easter Sunday massacre, the continuing dialogue between the President and the Archbishop has ended in a stalemate and no fresh dates have been allocated so far for further talks.

The Archbishop’s House had expressed reluctance for the Archbishop to meet the President at the Presidential Secretariat instead of the President meeting at the former’s abode as tradition demands.

While the government has been crossing swords with the UN and international community and those seeking justice for the Easter Sunday attacks, the country is slowly being chocked by ecocide as a result of the indiscriminate destruction and degradation that is being caused to the environment.  Conservationists and environmentalists accuse this government of being the worst offender and point the finger at the Higherechelons of the government for giving leadership to it.  

Swathes of forest land, including protected areas, are being cleared in the name of development, human settlement and crop cultivation. Trees and forests are important to absorb the excess carbon dioxide which emanates from human activity such as the burning of fossil fuels and to generate oxygen. A reduction in forest cover will lessen the level of oxygen in the air. The clearing of land is also displacing wild animals, including keystone species such as leopards and elephants, from their habitat which is resulting in an increased human-animal conflict and causing an imbalance in the ecological equilibrium.    

The latest victim of this chain of environmental destruction is Rewatha, a 45- year old tusker who graced the plains of Kalawewa with his majestic presence. He is one of 57 tuskers who have been killed over the years. His untimely death has evoked an outpouring of collective grief.  Rewatha died after he was electrocuted by an electric fence that had been erected around allegedly illegal maize cultivation.

The fence had been electrified by allegedly tapping into the main power grid. The suspect is reported to have been released on a surety of not more than 200, 000 rupees.

The use of electricity to kill, maim, injure or capture an elephant is an offence under the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance. The offence is also a non-bailable one.

Rewatha’s death was preceded by that of several other elephants who died similarly by getting electrocuted.  Immediately after his death, a pregnant elephant was also electrocuted in Sellankandal in the Puttalam area and died.  In this incident too the fence had been electrified by tapping into the main power line.

Even at this late hour people and wildlife lovers expect the authorities to take pragmatic and meaningful measures to protect fauna and flora in Sri Lanka of which most of the species have been classified as endangered and facing the threat of extinction in years to come.

 

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