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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2678

Government by Blindman’s Buff*

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

"Wholly a vortex; in which vain counsels, hallucinations, falsehoods, intrigues and imbecilities whirl…" Thomas Carlyle (The French Revolution: A History)

Sri Lanka needs intelligent governance today more than ever before. Not only is it necessary to prevent a Kosovo outcome in the North-East; it is also necessary to save our garment trade from collapsing. Seen in this context the President’s obvious unwillingness to appoint the Constitutional Council becomes inexplicable, as inexplicable as the sudden transferring out of the Chairman of the Bribery Commission without giving an iota of reason. Both acts will be held against us when the EU meets to decide the future of the privileges accorded to our garment exports. With Germany publicly declaring her opposition to the extension of this facility, the situation is dire. The President’s crude efforts to ensure a still birth for the Constitutional Council and to undermine the Bribery Commission couldn’t therefore have come at a worst time. Germany will use these Presidential misdeeds as conclusive proof of her own case against Sri Lanka.

The question cannot but obtrude – why? Why is the President so against the Constitutional Council? Its appointment will not hinder the war effort in any way. Nor will it be inimical to national development. It will not facilitate international intervention in Sri Lanka either. The Bribery Commission too is not damaging to the war effort. The President therefore could not have been motivated by patriotic reasons, even misguided ones. The reasons for these criminally counterproductive actions must be looked for elsewhere.

Mihin Air is a good place to start the search. Mihin Air is a criminal waste of funds at a time when funds are scarce and the government is sinking the country deeper and deeper in the debt mire just to make ends meet. Mihin Air is irrational from the point of the anti-Tiger war and of national development. It makes sense only from the point of personal glory of the President and the personal advancement of his coterie. Mihin Air is in existence at a time its existence is harmful to both the war effort and national economy because it bears the President’s name and gives lucrative employment to some of his favourites at national expense. Mihin Air is a symbol of Rajapakse governance, of its willingness to act against national interest when such action is necessary to promote the Rajapakse family.

The Constitutional Council is an anathema to the President because it will curtail his absolutist powers to some extent. A well functioning Bribery Commission can impede – however marginally – the capacity of the President and the regime to rule in accordance with their whims and fancies. Both institutions can deter the abuse of power and the abuse of public funds to a degree. That obviously is unacceptable to President Rajapakse and his coterie. Therefore efforts are being made to undermine both institutions even though these efforts are profoundly harmful to the country. Whether a political solution to the ethnic problem and greater observance of human rights are necessary or damaging to the war effort can be debated. But even the most avid Sinhala supremacist will have to agree that the Constitutional Council and the Bribery Commission can only help the war effort by improving our image internationally, at a time when it is badly needed. By sabotaging both institutions the Rajapakses are placing their familial and personal interests above those of the country and the war.

Creating Pitfalls

Never has it been more imperative for Sri Lanka to act wisely, to pay attention to international trends and the dangers inherent in them. The Kosovo story is a modern morality tale that helps us understand the real nature of the world we live in. It is a world in which a new Big Three, the US, the UK and the EU, calls most of the shots (within the EU, France and Germany are decisive). Where these three entities have contradictory agendas, spaces are created giving a degree of manoeuvrability to less powerful countries, Iran being a case in point. But when these three entities act in unison, they achieve their objective, even at the cost of the international law, as in Kosovo. Such a ‘united front’ is most likely when America has a Democratic President. It was Bill Clinton who, together with the EU, presided over the NATO air war against Serbia, a ‘humanitarian intervention’ based on the ‘Right to Protect’. Both Hilary Clinton and Barrack Obama would be equally willing to don this mantle of ‘humanitarian intervener’.

Kosovo in her Unilateral Declaration of Independence violated a UN Resolution; the US, Britain, France and Germany in promoting and accepting that UDI acted in contravention of international law. However illegal the birth of the new state of Kosovo may be, it is now a fait accompli. No amount of protests by Serbia, no amount of threats by Russia will change this reality. Peace, stability and prosperity may elude Kosovo, but it will survive, an intensely troubled ‘post-modern state’ guarded by more than 16,000 NATO troops, buttressed by a US base (Camp Bondsteel), “an entity that is sovereign in name but a US-EU protectorate in practice” (The Guardian – 19.2.2008).

Serbia is backed by Russia and has the support of countries as diverse and as influential as China, Spain and India. Yet it lost the battle for and with Kosovo. That failure contains a warning for Sri Lanka. We must not antagonise all the Big Three, simultaneously. Instead a conscious effort must be made to gain the support or at the least neutrality of one of the three entities. This does not require servility to the West. But it does require a less extreme, more moderate approach, both to the war and to the ethnic problem. Even as the war against the Tigers is prosecuted, concrete and immediate steps must be taken to reduce human rights violations to the absolute minimum. The search for a political solution to the ethnic problem should be expedited. If we are mindful of the need to protect Lankan Tamils in the midst of the war, the humanitarian intervention argument will loose its validity. If we do not discriminate against the minorities in the name of anti-terrorism or national security, if we demonstrate our willingness to share power with them, the R2P principle will become superfluous. That and not a head on confrontation is the best way to avoid a Kosovo outcome in the North-East.

This effort to improve our image will be near impossible so long as we see in every Tamil man, woman and child a potential Tiger. Last week we witnessed the indecent spectacle of the Minister of Education trying to deny a Tamil child the right to go to the school of her choice because of her ethnicity. These are symptoms of the malady of Sinhala hegemonism the Lankan state is succumbing to under Rajapakse rule, a malady that will work against Sri Lanka and work for a Kosovo outcome. Take this together with the supposed attempt by Mr. Rajapakse to impose an outsider on the Court of Appeal as its President. The composite picture is of a regime with a severely circumscribed vision, as incapable of seeing the ethno-religiously pluralist nature of Sri Lanka as it is of seeing the dangers inherent in undermining national institutions such as the judiciary.

The Rajapakses want to rule for as long as possible. They also want to rule in the manner they want, without any interference. Both the Constitutional Council and the Bribery Commission interferes with this right. That is why the President is trying to sabotage both entities. Sadly the government does not seem to be cognizant of the suicidal nature of its own actions. It is an inability that will ultimately undermine the Rajapakse’s own project, after it has undermined the war effort, the economy and the lives of a majority of the people.

Tiger Dreams

Vellupillai Pirapaharan obviously understands the post-Cold War/post-Socialist international conjuncture; he used his 2007 Mahaveer Day Speech to argue the applicability of humanitarian intervention and R2P principles to Sri Lanka: “The world’s powers, even while taking forward their own geo-political interests, respect human rights and democratic institutions…. That is why nations like East Timor and Montenegro broke free of their subjugation and gained their freedom with the help and support of the international community. Even now, the international community continues to work for the freedom of nations like Kosovo”.

The correct script but the wrong actor. The most crucial impediment to a ‘Kosovo outcome’ in Sri Lanka is the nature of the LTTE and the identity of its Supremo. India would not want to see the killer of Rajiv Gandhi carving out a state for himself. But this obstacle is not an eternal one. It can be removed by the death of the Tiger Chief; sans Mr. Pirapaharan, the LTTE will become palatable to Delhi. But the Pirapaharan factor may loose its potency in the eyes of India, if we make sufficient human rights violations in the context of the Fourth Eelam War and in the absence of a political solution to the ethnic problem. If the Northern offensive results in large scale civilian casualties and an exodus of refugees to Tamilnadu, Delhi’s current policy of benign neutrality can be replaced by one of inimical intervention. After all, the new state of Kosovo is also the child of Slobodan Milosevic’s Serb supremacism, of his brutal attempts to impose Serb hegemony on non-Serb people.

Recently the German Economic Cooperation and Development Minister revealed that her government will attempt to persuade the EU to remove the GSP facility granted to Lankan garments. The German minister’s statement should be taken seriously because Germany, together with France, plays a leading role in the EU. Interestingly this warning was made less than a week after President Rajapakse proclaimed in his Independence Day address that the international community has not lost an iota of confidence in us. Either our political leaders are lying to us or they are schizophrenics, who have lost touch with reality, who live in a world which has no existence beyond their febrile imaginations. This would explain the present ‘Chandi malli’ attitude to international relations, with important ministers and key political allies trying to outdo each other in insulting any country, individual or entity that does not offer Sri Lanka uncritical support.

A majority of Serbia’s Serb population greeted the birth of Independent Kosovo with a sad fatalism, brought about by ‘patriotic exhaustion’. Kosovo is considered the cradle of Serb civilisations, but a majority of Serbian Serbs – as different from the Serbs in Kosovo - seem unwilling to risk another war to keep Kosovo. This is evidenced by the outcome of the recent Presidential election in Serbia. The ultra nationalist and pro-Russian candidate Tomislav Nikolic was narrowly defeated by the pro-European incumbent President Boris Tadic - despite the common knowledge that Mr. Tadic’s election would act as an encouragement for Kosovo to declare independence. A majority of Serbs, however unhappily, chose economic well being over nationalism; they opted to be a part of the EU, someday, even at the cost of Kosovo. No people will tolerate unbearable hardships indefinitely, if they have a chance of opting out of an untenable situation peacefully.

And in most multi-party democracies that choice is available, even if it is the unpalatable one of betrayal. A majority of Serbs decided to let Kosovo go because the price of trying to retain it was more than they were willing to pay. Economic distress and desperation can take nations where they never intended to go, and are not happy to be in, simply in order to survive, as individuals and families. It is a destination the nationalist Rajapakses may take us if they act in accordance with a reality that exists nowhere except in their own minds.

*This phrase was used by Thomas Carlyle to identify the regime of Louis VI of France.

- Asian Tribune -

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