Geo-political reality bites

Late last week, increasingly influential hardline groups in the country rallied against the internationally-acclaimed TIME Magazine for its cover story featuring controversial Burmese monk Wirathu, whose 969 movement has been accused of provoking major anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar that has been rocked by riots and the deliberate targeting of Muslim communities in the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Wirathu’s rhetoric, calling on Buddhist Burmese citizens to boycott Muslim-owned shops and businesses and seeking legislation to restrict women from marrying Muslim men, finds resonance in the Islamophobia whipped up by political Buddhist groups operating freely in Sri Lanka, prompting hardliners in this country to spring to the defence of Wirathu being branded by TIME Magazine as the ‘Face of Buddhist Terror’.

Sri Lanka became only the second country in the world to ban the controversial edition of TIME on Tuesday (2), after the Government in Myanmar proscribed it last week. The move was a result of hectic lobbying on the part of the Bodu Bala Sena organisation that approached Media Ministry Secretary Charitha Herath and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa to get the ban enforced before the magazines hit newsstands this week.Dharisha

Customs officials detained 4,000 copies of the offending magazine at the Bandaranaike International Airport, claiming it could hurt religious sentiments in the country. Sri Lanka Customs has authority to detain any publication that features content that could injure religious sensibilities in the island, the officials said, explaining why the distribution of the 1 July edition of TIME would never reach Sri Lankan subscribers. Senior Government officials will no doubt defend the move since the TIME cover story could be construed as an insult to Buddhism, which Sri Lanka’s Constitution seeks especially to protect.

Radicals

Except that the teachings of the Burmese monk Wirathu are not to be in any way confused with the pacifist philosophy preached by Siddhartha Gautama. Wirathu’s rhetoric is no more Buddhist than the hysterical railing against Muslim culture and food habits by groups like the Sinhala Ravaya, the Bodu Bala Sena and their ardent supporters.

These groups’ only claim to being protectors of the Dhamma lies in the fact that the chief proponents of their ideology are men in saffron robes, a cartel of radical priests that have learned to make the loudest noise and declare themselves the sole protectors of Sri Lankan Buddhism, decrying as traitor any member of the Sangha that dares to appeal for tolerance and peaceful coexistence between religious communities.

The fact that Bodu Bala Sena regards Wirathu and his 969 movement as kin exposes the Sri Lankan movement’s agenda and the Burmese experience with its slaughter and displacement of Muslim populations raises a red flag about where the spread of ethno-religious hate speech and violence could lead.

The Rajapaksa regime has blocked publications at Customs several times before, when the offending foreign magazine featured a particularly critical article about the country’s ruling elite. Yet the ban on the 1 July edition of TIME marks the first time the Government has moved to block a publication over an article that does not directly relate to Sri Lanka even though it mentions the country’s hardline Buddhist groups and their gathering strength in passing. The Government’s swift move to ban the magazine not only speaks directly to the access enjoyed by groups like the Bodu Bala Sena and the powerful lobby they have become in terms of potential to drastically influence and control Government policy.

Media freedom issues ahead of CHOGM

Interestingly, the move to ban an international magazine that has generated much publicity already is a stark indicator of the deluge of media freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of dissent issues still plaguing the country three months ahead of a major Commonwealth Summit scheduled in Colombo.
Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma’s ‘optimism’ about Sri Lanka’s progress on reconciliation issues, attributed in part to the Commonwealth’s partnership and principle of engagement with the country, in some ways belies the situation on the ground in terms of the ruling regime’s adherence to democratic norms and core Commonwealth values.

Even as the Secretary General expressed these sentiments, diplomatic circles were abuzz as doubts continued to mount about the Sri Lankan Government’s affording of access to some 1,300 foreign journalists expected to arrive in Colombo to cover the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has appointed a CHOGM Media Committee that will oversee the logistical support provided to the hundreds of foreign press personnel that will converge on the capital before the summit is scheduled to officially open. Foreign journalists flying in for the event will be accredited by the CHOGM Secretariat, but the Sri Lankan authorities will still have to grant visas to these participants to permit them entry into the country.

The Rajapaksa regime continues to view the foreign media with intense suspicion, some sections of it more than others. This has raised concern in diplomatic circles in Commonwealth member states as to whether the country’s defence authorities in particular will firstly permit the entry of these ‘hostile’ media outfits into Sri Lanka and secondly, and more worryingly, whether these journalists will be monitored in any way once they arrive.

Britain’s Channel 4 and Australia’s ABC network will be among those media outfits high on the Government’s watch list. The Defence Ministry has denied entry to Channel 4 executives in the recent past, and while it may not have jurisdiction over visas in the case of accredited journalists covering CHOGM, there is little doubt that Channel 4 applications and personnel will be closely scrutinised upon arrival.

The international community’s fears for foreign journalists touring Sri Lanka during CHOGM are those the domestic media community in the country contend with on a daily basis. The practice of self-censorship, the subtle intimidation from the upper echelons of Government and the somewhat more transparent violence against the free press, as witnessed recently in the twin attacks on the Jaffna based Uthayan newspaper offices, paint a bleak picture of press freedom in the country.

Seeking to further boost its credentials as media oppressors, the Media Ministry recently announced it was drafting a ‘code of ethics’ for the media, to create a more responsible reporting environment. It may be argued that Sri Lanka’s press needs no further controls, given its bloody and violent recent past, but the Media Ministry headed by Minister Keheliya Rambukwella believe otherwise.

Ethics for politicos?

The idea of the ruling regime, notorious for corruption scandals, abuse of power and atrocious manipulation of the State-controlled media, preaching ethics to the free media would be incongruous enough if the Media Minister’s wayward offspring did not further reinforce the point with his antics on an aircraft cruising at 35,000 feet earlier this week. The Sri Lankan A Team Cricketer Ramith Rambukwella allegedly attempted to open a cabin door at cruising altitude, creating a sensation aboard the British Airways flight bound from St. Lucia in the Caribbean to London.

Sri Lanka Cricket, after initially refusing to name the cricketer, claimed Rambukwella junior had merely mistaken the cabin door for a toilet door due to the dim lighting in the aircraft. Initial reports said the cricketer had been intoxicated when he caused the commotion. Minister Rambukwella has meanwhile constantly maintained to journalists that his son “only occasionally drinks wine”.

Sri Lanka Cricket claimed the cricketer had immediately apologised profusely to other passengers and cabin crew for the confusion. SLC has promised an inquiry, but only after the manager submits a report on the incident. Media personnel in Sri Lanka would wager anything that the young cricketer would be completely exonerated in any SLC inquiry into the matter.

A code of ethics for politicians and their offspring, they might say, might be the more timely and appropriate move, with journalists left to abide by the Editors Guild Code of Ethics for Journalists drafted by their peers. The Government’s code of ethics is being seen for the tool of suppression it is by most sections of the Sri Lankan press, especially after the regime also resurrected the draconian Sri Lanka Press Council Act and placed State-appointed arbiters to adjudicate on press complaints.

But the Sri Lankan Government’s record on press freedom is an open secret and one that could not have escaped the notice of the Commonwealth Secretariat and the CHOGM organisers, who have been preparing for a Colombo summit since 2011.

It is learnt that Commonwealth officials and diplomats continue to engage in consultations with the Defence Ministry and the immigration authorities about ensuring the access of foreign media personnel and their safety once they arrive in Sri Lanka. Simply the fact that these ‘negotiations’ as it were about the freedom of movement and access for journalists covering the summit are necessary three months ahead of the summit, highlights how far from ideal Sri Lanka is as a choice for CHOGM, Government critics say.

In fact, according to firebrand Opposition MP Mangala Samaraweera, if the Commonwealth fails to demand that Sri Lanka moves to strengthen democracy and rule of law in the run-up to the major November summit, the 54-member body will merely be rubber stamping what he has called an ‘emerging dictatorship’ in Asia.

Rubber-stamping

CHOGM is traditionally a platform for reiteration of the grouping’s core values of democracy, human rights, independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression and rule of law by 54 Heads of Government. As host and incoming CHOGM Chair for the next two years, Sri Lanka is expected to embody and uphold those values, a task that at this stage at least appears too much to hope for from the ruling administration in Colombo.

With a change of venue at this stage being virtually impossible, the international community appears to be resigned to playing the hand it is dealt, coercing and negotiating with a regime that has come in for harsh international and domestic criticism for eroding Sri Lanka’s democratic credentials and pursuing an increasingly autocratic style of governance.

As intense pressure from New Delhi and a lack of consensus within the ruling coalition scuttled President Rajapaksa’s plans to tinker with the 13th Amendment ahead of a provincial poll in the north, an election in September, albeit a little behind schedule, looks to be the only major concession the Government will make ahead of CHOGM 2013. The election that the international community has been pressing for is likely to take place in the last weekend of September, with President Rajapaksa now expected to constitute the Northern Provincial Council by proclamation sometime this week.

July will prove to be a watershed month in terms of the fate of the 13th Amendment overall. On 9 July, the same day the Government-appointed Parliamentary Select Committee to recommend solutions to the national issue will convene for the first time, its sole membership comprising legislators from the ruling UPFA coalition, India will dispatch its National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon to Colombo with a special message from the Indian Government for President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Following his meeting with the President, Menon will also meet with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and representatives of the TNA, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the main opposition UNP.

Menon-Rajapaksa powwow

Analysts say Menon’s meeting with President Rajapaksa comes at a crucial juncture when New Delhi has been open about its shock over Colombo’s moves to dilute the 13th Amendment and potentially alter, unilaterally, a bilateral accord between the two countries. As such, the Menon-Rajapaksa meeting will be ‘less diplomatic’ and more straightforward about what consequences could arise from the Rajapaksa Government’s attempt to tamper with the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord.

The Indian Government’s message could be a bold outline of expectations, a reminder of previous commitments and promises to New Delhi and President Rajapaksa’s own commitments to his own people following the conclusion of the military conflict in 2009. According to some analysts, what may remain unsaid during the Menon meeting on 9 July could be some possibilities New Delhi may be considering as last resorts if Colombo continues to renege on its post-war international commitments on reconciliation and devolution.

If the hectic attempt to scuttle devolution plans continue in Sri Lanka, New Delhi may place crucial issues on the agenda, including the controversial island of Kachchativu, speculated on widely since the Sri Lankan Government officially announced plans to revise the 13th Amendment, analysts say, while further escalation of the issue could even endanger Colombo’s enviable position as a transhipment hub and the Free Trade Agreement with India.

However, given Colombo’s cosying up to Beijing, which puts its trade concerns above all else, it is unlikely India will mix politics with trade unless it is willing to concede influence exponentially to China with regard to Sri Lanka.

Yet these possibilities remain important in terms of how the Government handles the sensitive situation with New Delhi at this juncture, especially with the South Asian giant rapidly losing faith in the Government in Colombo.
Indian experts say New Delhi will tread cautiously, exhausting its diplomatic wherewithal in measured fashion based on the response from Colombo. As systematically applied pressure appears to be working in terms of deferring the Government’s moves to alter 13A ahead of the northern election, New Delhi could back off only to re-enter the fray when the issue re-emerges.

There is also some confidence in diplomatic quarters that once the Northern Council is elected and constituted, tampering with the 13th Amendment would prove that much harder for the Central Government, with the TNA enjoying more leverage as the most recently elected representatives of the Tamil people of the north. Moves to dilute the powers of the provincial councils may then be seen as a blatant attempt to disregard or dismiss the mandate of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population in the north.

But while the Government may have backtracked on the hasty moves to boost its credentials internationally ahead of CHOGM and to pacify New Delhi to prevent the summit from being scuttled, there is little doubt that repealing the provincial council system will remain high on the regime’s agenda. It is building opinion to that end resolutely, in supreme confidence that should the move require a referendum in the end to enforce, the groundwork will be well laid and ripe for a pro-Rajapaksa landslide.

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