In his maiden meeting with visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Mtegi Toshimitsu, President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has reiterated the known position that Sri Lanka under him “seek(s) friendship and reject domination by others”. Coming as it does, months before the March session of the UNHRC and also the parliamentary polls that he may cause to be advanced by a few months, it is saying a lot – both to the ‘international community’ (read: West) and also the Rajapaksas’ local constituency that they need to expand beyond Gota’s presidential poll score, if they have to achieve the targeted two-thirds majority in the 225-member House even with new allies, if they manage to get any.
The West would be defeating their perceived and projected purposes, and also do a great dis-service to their allies in the country if they were to press ‘war-crimes’ and ‘accountability issues’, which they had all but cold-stored through the five long years of the predecessor Government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe – and made common cause with them on that score. It is anybody’s guess why they could not extend the same facility to the Rajapaksas, now that they have won a popular mandate after losing it in the presidential polls of 2015 and the parliamentary elections the same year.
Among the identifiable allies of the West in Sri Lanka, the Tamil TNA does not want anyone’s help and assistance to win their seats in Parliament. An overt western initiative against the Government in UNHRC, too, would not affect their constituency, either way. The Tamil voters continue to want the Rajapaksas ‘punished’, electorally, but they are also not wholly unaware that it does happen as they wished or as promised by the West. The Sinhala-majority UNP friend of the West can only lose more votes if the latter were to agitate ‘accountability issues’, new and old, at Geneva, ahead of the parliamentary polls.
‘The West may do well to revisit the poll results since 2015 and fix the real reason for the Rajapaksas’ defeat earlier – or, their resounding victory last month. Instances can be cited in either case, but the party and leader(s) in power lost both elections to anti-incumbency factors, which did not actually flow from war-crimes and the like. The target of both campaigns, whether understood or not (by the West) or acknowledged by the domestic contenders, before or after the polls, was the increasing numbers of ‘swing’ or ‘undecided’ voters, through the past decade. By the same token, there is a need to accept that these ‘undecided voters’ are more liberal in giving the incumbent a long rope, for him to climb up – or, to hang, if he chose show. The factors that helped the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo’s parliamentary victory, after unseating President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2015 is still valid.
In the reverse, any over-emphasis on war-crimes probe and the like could provide the Rjaapaksas a real occasion and opportunity, to revive ‘sovereignty’ issues, through the months and years before Elections-2015. Today, there may be greater purchase for such arguments among Sri Lankan voters, call them ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists’, if you wish. Any fresh UNHRC initiative by the West against Sri Lanka could end up being counter-productive nearer home, where some of the predecessor Government’s senior ministers with their own political ambitions for the future, may be put on the defensive – and almost forever.
Both before his election and after assuming office President Gota R has reiterated the Rajapaksas’ known position, disassociating from the UNHRC process on the whole. It was thus that under Mahinda R, Sri Lanka would not even officially get to read the draft of the 2012 American resolution, leave alone negotiate it or participate in the UNHRC proceedings. However, with the successor government in between having co-authored a new resolution, committing the nation to the UNHRC process at least on paper, the current dispensation have to declare its intent, in writing and by mid-January if they want it to be considered by the March session of the UNHRC.
Quite possibly, the Rajapaksa leadership may only be too happy to do so, if between now and mid-January deadline for the purpose, the West continued to pressure the nation with new issues and concerns. Otherwise, yes, Resolution 30/1 is not up for a full review until the September session next year. That’s what the UNHRC Council voted for in March this year, considering the year of elections in Sri Lanka – which incidentally includes the nine Provincial Council elections, too.
On a law of averages, it suits the Rajapaksas anyway to keep the electoral focii next year on the UNHRC, rather than flag other contemporary issues going back to a weakened UNP rival, which is still struggling to settle the party’s leadership issue – even if it meant an interim arrangement. But only any western initiative could make it all the more relevant for issues of ‘sovereignty’ to be relevant for the election season – not possibly otherwise. But then, the more the TNA keeps talking about the ‘Tamils traditional homeland’ and ‘self-determination rights’, greater are the chances that the Rajapaksas would get more votes and seats in the Sinhala area.
And greater electoral domination of the Rajapaksas and their allies in the parliamentary polls especially would owe not because of ‘Sinhala-Buddhist hard-liner votes’, but because of any international pressure on Sri Lanka and/or the TNA’s style of campaign. After all, you cannot call those additional votes that may go to the Rajapaksas as ‘Sinhala hard-liners’, as otherwise they might have voted the UNP, JVP or any other rival of the Rajapaksas.
The older generation may not have forgotten the ‘LTTE atrocities’ and the West’s ‘duality’ in the global arena – supporting the Government in fighting the LTTE nearer home, but hauling up Colombo in UNHRC and the UNSC (whether however they failed). The younger generation saw some of it in the ‘Easter Sunday serial-blasts’ this year – and also the post-blasts socio-political dynamics, across the board. They need only a trigger to push them back to the wall, from where they seem to believe that Sri Lanka can only fight back, and that they need the Rajapaksas (alone) to do it for the nation.
Flight to safety
The post-poll ‘Swiss controversy’ and also the British Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s post-poll victory message exclusive addressing the Tamil voters (mostly from Sri Lanka) belong here. There are twin issues linked to the Swiss Embassy, and by extension the Berne Government, here – two sides of the same coin, rather. One is about the less-publicised way the Embassy got a Sri Lankan police investigator and family ‘smuggled’ (?) out of the country, after he had expressed harassment from the new Government leaders for investigating them under the previous regime. The other that followed is shrouded in greater mystery after a local employee of the embassy alleged abduction and harassment – and the Swiss envoy made it a public issue, for her Government too to take it up with the Sri Lankan ambassador over there.
Granting that the police officer faced persecution and/or received threat-calls, how many such other similarly-placed Sri Lankan police investigators did the Swiss or any other western embassy in Colombo took a personal interest in them, to ensure their ‘flight to safety’’? How come the female employee whom the embassy wanted to be taken to Switzerland for emergency medical treatment, that too in an ‘air-ambulance’ and for whose exit the embassy wanted exemption from visa procedure, could appear before local investigators for hours and days in a row?
In both cases, all that the Embassy needed to do was to bring it to the notice of local authorities, going all the way up to the highest levels, or encouraged/helped them, if needed to approach local courts – and make a big news story of them, for the nation to keep a close watch on. Both individuals were/are Sri Lankan citizens, and even the girl does not hold any ‘diplomatic status’ to claim ‘diplomatic immunity’. Or, was there an inseparable link between the two cases, where interrogation of the female employee, who was readily available still in Sri Lanka, could have embarrassed higher-ups over the other case?
Such unthinking diplomatic gaffe and political faux pas by foreign Governments was not uncommon during post-war Mahinda regime. Now, as then, it all flowed from unilateral thinking, which seems also to believe that the other man too was/is not capable of doing so – though he might not have had the global muscle to flex, all the same. But then if it could all secure the electoral and political chances of the targeted persona nearer home, then why not let the other people and nations play their games, even though the nation and the polity can do without tit all, all the same….
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: [email protected])