The Rajapakse way

To most Sri Lankans, Anna Hazare’s name would be unfamiliar, his Jan Lokpal Bill even more so. But the veteran social activist’s marathon fast did have an (unintended) effect on Sri Lanka.

India’s preoccupation with the Hazare crisis turned the much-hyped discussion of the Lankan issue in the Rajya Sabha into a damp squib. In the electric atmosphere of the fast, the problems of Lankan Tamils would have seemed rather distant and insignificant to most Indian parliamentarians.
For the beleaguered Rajapakse administration in Colombo, this turn of events would have come as an unlooked-for reprieve. For months, the regime has been buffeted by adverse external winds (mainly from Tamil Nadu and the West). Now, with the danger of a full-throated debate on Sri Lanka in the Indian Parliament out of the way, Colombo is free to focus on the next pitfall — the possibility of the Lankan issue coming up during the September session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Friendly countries are being lobbied, a highly capable Lankan Tamil diplomat appointed as the permanent representative in Geneva and a top-level delegation selected to represent the island-nation.
The hurried ending of the three-decade-old Emergency Rule was a pre-emptive exercise aimed at the UNHRC, intended as a token of Sri Lanka’s bona fides, an indication of the Rajapakse administration’s responsiveness to international concerns. Unfortunately there are signs that this measure may turn out to be more of a smoke-and-mirror affair rather than a real change. The ministry of justice has already announced that around 6,000 Lankans imprisoned under the Emergency will not be released, but be detained under other laws. This would be easy as the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act is still in place. According to local media, new laws are to be introduced to fill any gap created by the removal of the Emergency.
The Rajapakse siblings (President Mahinda, defence secretary Gotabhaya and economic development minister Basil) are pursuing a political project that is inherently centripetal since it aims at establishing familial rule and dynastic succession. Their record demonstrates intolerance of criticism, hostility to dissent and unwillingness to delegate real authority to anyone outside a closed circle of family members and trusted aides. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which removed presidential term limits while immeasurably enhancing presidential powers, was symbolic and symptomatic of these dominant tendencies.
Two years and four months after defeating the LTTE, normalcy and a consensual peace elude Sri Lanka. The Tamil-majority north remains under de facto military occupation and a political solution to the ethnic problem is conspicuous by its absence. These twin outcomes stem from the very essence of Rajapakse-thinking. The siblings do not believe in the existence of an ethnic problem; in their perception, the north-eastern issue was a terrorist problem which was resolved when the LTTE was defeated. Consequently, peace-building is a law and order exercise with some development thrown in as relish.
The Rajapakse siblings are adept at creating an impression of extreme flexibility while remaining absolutely immovable. External pressure will be dealt with by making sincere-sounding promises and occasional cosmetic changes. The best case in point is the changed mandate of the new All Parties Conference. This was promised to India as a vehicle to arrive at a political solution to the ethnic problem. But subsequently its mandate was changed into the far more amorphous one of promoting “national unity”. This shift in emphasis tallies with the oft-repeated Rajapakse assertion that the Tamils (and the Muslims) do not have any special problems or insecurities.
A key external advantage the Rajapakses enjoy is India’s confused and confusing Lankan policy. Delhi is facing a geographic-demographic conundrum in dealing with Colombo. India wants to prevent Sri Lanka from becoming a Chinese satellite and is obviously concerned about the rapidly growing politico-economic ties between Colombo and Beijing. But India cannot give Sri Lanka the satisfaction it gets from China because of the Tamil Nadu factor. With 60 million Indian Tamils, Delhi can ignore Chennai’s concerns only up to a point. Giving the Rajapakses carte blanche on devolution and human rights in order to wean Sri Lanka away from China is thus a non-option, for electoral and political reasons.
China is not burdened by such handicaps. There are no Chinese Tamils; and human rights and democracy are of no interest to China. Thus, it can offer the Rajapakse regime uncritical support, plus almost unlimited cash. China’s political and demographic realities and economic and financial strength enable it to indulge Colombo to a degree that Delhi can never equal.
India’s manifest incapacity to deal with Sri Lanka has created a void into which the US is slowly stepping. The recent American demarche to Sri Lanka on human rights issues was unprecedented. Washington’s response to the ending of Emergency Rule is another indication of this increased assertiveness; the US welcomed the move but warned that the international community will have to step in if Lanka fails to comply with “international humanitarian laws and obligations”.
Sri Lanka as a Chinese satellite would be as unacceptable to the US as it is to India. While India is trying (unsuccessfully) to prevent such an outcome via a policy of friendly engagement, the Americans seem increasingly willing to opt for a harder line. The Rajapakses’ unwillingness to share power with the minorities and dependence on China may well turn Sri Lanka into an unconscious pawn in the power games of other far bigger players. For Sri Lankans it would not be a felicitous prospect.

Tisaranee Gunasekara is a writer based in Colombo

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