A swashbuckling opening for the country’s second airport ahead of a vote on a US-backed resolution against Sri Lanka could not quite take away the sting of defeat at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Days later, warning bells sounded in Washington DC about an impending international war crimes probe if Sri Lanka fails to mount a credible investigation into alleged atrocities. The ruling administration in Colombo is choosing to focus instead on keeping the memory of war and bloodshed paramount in the people’s minds
On 2 June 1987, the LTTE slaughtered 33 Buddhist monks and four civilians in cold blood in a remote jungle village in the Ampara District. Thirty of the monks were novice priests, being escorted by bus on pilgrimage by their mentor, Ven. Hegoda Sri Indrasara Thera. After ambushing the bus the Tiger cadres went on the rampage, attacking the monks and four civilians travelling alongside with swords and bullets. The Tigers had hoped the attack on the Sangha would incense the Sinhalese community, whose Buddhist sensibilities would be deeply wounded by the atrocities against the theros, inciting them to reactionary violence against the Tamil population. It never materialised. But the Aranthalawa Massacre stands out in Sri Lanka’s separatist conflict as one of its most brutal and unforgiving moments.
Twenty-six years later, a Buddhist Cultural Centre has been constructed at the site of the gruesome murders. It will be named in honour of the teacher monk, Indrasara Thero. But the commemoration does not end there. The site also features a ‘monument’ to the massacre, a gruesome sculpture recreated inside an old CTB bus that inartistically portrays the slain and bleeding monks.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was in Ampara to declare open the Deyata Kirula exhibition last weekend, also inaugurated the Buddhist Cultural Centre and massacre monument in Aranthalawa, saying he hoped the memorial would foster amity and ethnic harmony between the communities. The President said the monument was not aimed at creating hatred between ethnic groups, but as a symbol of the futility of conflict.
The President’s comfort level with the grotesque sculpture is understandable. Aides say a certain meeting room at Temple Trees, his unofficial residence, in which the walls are plastered with photographs of LTTE atrocities, bomb explosions and village massacres, is a firm favourite with the President. As the ultimate conqueror of the Tigers’ reign of terror, in the island, President Rajapaksa views these portraits of terror and death as a constant reminder of why he made the decision he did to defeat the LTTE militarily.
Provoking the living?
Not being war executors, other sections of the citizenry might be forgiven for not being able to view the “monument” without wincing. But in post-war Sri Lanka, much of the monument building appears to have less to do with honouring the dead and more with provoking the living. All over the north, the smattering of ‘war memorials’ feature guns or soldiers or bullets. A recently-constructed park in Nawala prominently displays an old Army tank. The war might be over, but the regime persists in perpetuating its memory everywhere.
Victory over the LTTE is the incumbent Government’s single most unassailable legacy. The Government cannot help but flaunt that triumph in the faces of the citizenry, because the regime’s legitimacy, in spite of international censure, burgeoning economic woes and oppressive governance systems, is derived from that singular achievement. It does so in spite of the losses suffered by the people of the north and east and the need to temper the jingoistic, triumphalist sentiment that continues to dominate the political discourse in the rest of the country.
The Government genuinely views these monuments as symbols of reconciliation: resort hotels in the heart of former Tiger territory, the guns and armour that won the peace, the artistic reconstruction of brutal massacres and the photo galleries of terror. It dismisses and eschews those simple and harmless reconciliation measures prescribed by its own commission on the war, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission: allowing the national anthem to be sung in both Sinhala and Tamil – as it has been for decades before the ruling administration outlawed it (unofficially) two years ago – and a ceremony to commemorate all victims of the conflict, soldier, Tiger and civilian every Independence Day; an apology by politicians across the ideological divide for a collective failure to resolve the conflict without such a vast loss of life.
Filling the gap
It is precisely this reconciliation ‘gap’ that the international community saw fit to censure for the second consecutive year at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last week. On the penultimate day of the Council’s 22nd Session, the US-backed resolution against Sri Lanka calling on Colombo to make faster progress on outstanding reconciliation issues and launch a credible, independent inquiry into alleged human rights abuses during the final stages of the Government’s war with the LTTE was adopted with 25 countries voting in support of the resolution, 13 voting against and 8 members states abstaining.
Following up on the adoption of the resolution, US Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs, and former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Robert O. Blake in an interview with the BBC’s Sinhala Service a few days urged Sri Lanka to welcome special rapporteurs to the country. “Again, we would strongly recommend that they do so because the failure to do so suggests that they have something to hide and again, would reinforce calls for some sort of international mechanism,” he warned.
The adoption of the resolution in Geneva was a foregone conclusion. Despite Colombo’s sabre-rattling last year with a 70-strong delegation descending on Geneva to try to pull off a victory against the US move, it became clear early on that when the US sponsors a resolution with as much will as it does the Sri Lanka resolutions, it also puts its formidable diplomatic gear into motion to ensure it garners the necessary support and numbers for adoption. In fact, antics by some sections of the Sri Lanka delegation to Geneva in March 2012 hurt rather than helped Colombo’s cause, after some delegates from Colombo allegedly threatened human rights activists and Tamil lobby groups at side events in full view of delegations from other member states.
This year, Sri Lanka adopted a far less bombastic attitude towards the proceedings in Geneva, owing in some measure to the change of Sri Lanka’s diplomatic representation to the UN following the 2012 fiasco. In the face of certain defeat on the question of the resolution, diplomatic sources said that the attitude and conduct of Sri Lanka’s envoy to Geneva this year, Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha had set a completely different tone in engagement and negotiations on the resolution, even with the US delegation that was drafting the document.
Colombo’s former Permanent Representative to Geneva, Tamara Kunanayakam, a long time friend of President Rajapaksa since his own UN Commission on Human Rights days in the ’90s, advocated a policy of confrontation and offensive diplomacy with the West and the UN and its High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay and supported a realignment of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy towards the countries of Latin America and Africa.
Aryasinha refrained from personally swiping at either the US or High Commissioner Pillay during this year’s sessions, leaving that somewhat unsavoury task to Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, who headed the Sri Lankan delegation to the 22nd Session of the UNHRC. Samarasinghe fired salvo after salvo in his first and last speeches before the Council, slamming High Commissioner Pillay for submitting a biased report based on conjecture and the US for pretending to hold itself up as a champion of human rights when it was committing its own share.
Despite this, the adoption of the resolution Sri Lanka was not without small victories. For one thing it managed to have a clause included in the draft acknowledging progress on infrastructure development, resettlement and demining. For another, the controversial ‘unfettered access’ clause was deleted, in order to obtain broader support for the resolution, according to the US.
Support from Islamic states
In another major victory, even as the country remained intent to paint the UN and the West as the enemy, Sri Lanka’s cause was wholeheartedly supported by Islamic nations at the Council, with all except two – Libya and Sierra Leone – voting against or abstaining on the Sri Lanka resolution. Pakistan, which was representing the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), in fact requested the Council President for a vote on the US-backed resolution that its delegation called intrusive and taking a completely different direction from the 2012 version.
Interestingly, the US delegation, in canvassing support for its resolution on Sri Lanka, lobbied extensively among Islamic member states of the Council on the basis that Sri Lanka was not only slow to move on healing between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities in the island, but also permitting the meteoric rise of Sinhala hard-line groups that were spear-heading anti-Muslim campaigns in the island.
The activities of the Bodu Bala Sena group, which recently received patronage from the highest echelons of the ruling regime after Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa presided over the opening of the group’s leadership academy in Galle, has already commanded the attention of the Jordan-based OIC, a powerful bloc of Islamic nations that has historically good relations with Sri Lanka. Last week, the OIC sounded an alarm about the harassment of Muslims in the island in an extensive statement, but continued to extend its unstinted support to Colombo in Geneva to block the US-backed resolution. If the Bodu Bala Sena and Sinhala Ravaya groups continue to gain ground in the island, analysts say, Sri Lanka stands to lose the support of that crucial bloc in 2014.
Social media ire
Last weekend, the Bodu Bala Sena held a rally in Panadura, where it claimed Sri Lanka was a Sinhala Buddhist country and not a multiethnic, multi-religious one. It called for the recall of Sri Lankan envoy to Singapore and wife of the late M.H.M. Ashraff, Ferial Ashraff, on grounds that she was carrying out anti-Sinhala activities at the embassy there. It also sent out a heartfelt gratitude to a State-owned mobile telecommunications company for making a Bodu Bala Sena ringing tone available to its customers with proceeds from the download to be channelled to the group.
The revelation sparked outrage among the online community, which first got wind of the claim via the Twitter network. A social media campaign erupted almost instantaneously to attempt to pressure the company to disassociate itself from hard-line groups like the Bodu Bala Sena. Offended subscribers called or walked into service centres and even the company’s headquarters threatening to discontinue their subscriptions and demanding the ring-tone be removed. Social media activists claim the combined reach of all the tweets and the Facebook shares was over 10,000. The company’s official Facebook page was inundated with comments expressing their displeasure at the move to support extremist groups. Many people called to register their protest and hundreds more wrote emails that were also shared on social media.
The same company is also being accused by social media users of having supported another hard-line movement called the Sinhala Ravaya that was responsible for the demolition of a Sufi mosque in Anuradhapura in 2011 and is leading the call for the demolition of the Kuragala Sufi shrine by 30 April, by advertising in the group’s official newsletter. The social media opposition has caused serious concern to the company in question, which finally released an online clarification, but stopped short at discontinuing the downloadable ring tone or publishing the apology in the mainstream media.
The statement dated 27 March that was posted on the company’s official Facebook page tendered a “humble apology” towards its customers and citizens of Sri Lanka for any emotional distress caused by the ringing tone in question. The statement by the company goes on to say that the company is committed to upholding values of unity and ethnic harmony amongst the people in Sri Lanka, but refuses to accept responsibility for the content of a ringtone that is available for download in their ring tone gallery. “By adding this content, we by no means endorse the content or the views of the owner of the content. We must stress that this does not mean we are funding the owner of the content and their work,” the statement said.
In a strange twist to the tale, a 45% stake of the company in question is held by a company called Global Telecommunications Holdings NV, which is holding it for Maxis Communications Berhad, a company based in Malaysia. The majority shares however are still held by the Government of Sri Lanka. Interestingly, Sri Lanka’s telecom industry is dominated by parent companies operating in Islamic countries and territories.
As the Bodu Bala Sena grows in influence, pampered and protected by the ruling elite, opposition to the movement is also mounting, among a small but vociferous group of moderates that are aiming to change perceptions online, in post-to-post combat with the social media savvy Bodu Bala Sena, its affiliates and supporters. In the mainstream however, the hardliners dominate the rhetoric.
The crescendo of anti-Muslim rhetoric and isolated incidents targeting Muslims, their businesses and places of worship around the island not only prompted the US to use this development as leverage in Geneva, but also ensured that a clause on ensuring the protection of religious freedom and lack of discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs was inserted into the 2013 UNHRC resolution. It is irrefutable proof that while the Government consistently downplays or worse, buys into the Bodu Bala Sena and Sinhala Ravaya rhetoric, the world is beginning to sit up and take notice. Given the international challenges still lying ahead of the country in 2013, this is a development that should concern the ruling regime.
On 20 March, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr was in New York, reportedly chairing a Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group meeting via teleconference. The CMAG is the powerful decision making body of the Commonwealth with the ability to recommend member states for suspension and expulsion from the organisation. Bangladesh is the current chair of the nine state grouping, which also includes Australia, Canada, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobag, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Vanuatu and the Maldives which is under suspension.
The special electronic meeting, conducted ahead of the CMAG’s official meeting on 26 April, was convened to discuss the deteriorating situation in the Maldives, according to official reports from the Commonwealth Secretariat. However, at the insistence of Canada, which the Bangladeshi Government had warned Colombo about ahead of the teleconference, Sri Lanka was also to feature in the discussions.
As hosts of the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Sri Lanka is garnering a great deal of attention in Commonwealth nations, even as its human rights record and adherence to democratic values comes under international scrutiny. Canada is leading the charge for a boycott of the Summit in Colombo unless the Government of Sri Lanka makes progress on the human rights front.
The question of Sri Lanka’s inclusion in the CMAG agenda for the April meeting was raised by Canada during the teleconference and found support with the representatives from Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. Like Canada, both Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago are Commonwealth Realms, with Queen Elizabeth II of the UK functioning as their Queen and Head of State. The ties of the two Caribbean states to the Britain makes it clear that looking ahead to CHOGM 2013 in Colombo, the key pressure points will emerge from Canada and the UK, where newspapers, academics and rights groups are pressuring their Governments to change the summit venue or boycott the meeting altogether. Interestingly, Sierra Leone, which is also a CMAG member state, voted in support of the US-backed resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC.
As it stands, it is almost a certainty that several key Commonwealth states will consider a lower level of representation if the summit goes ahead in Colombo in November. It is almost certain now that Queen Elizabeth II, who is the Head of the Commonwealth, will not be in attendance at CHOGM 2013.
Last week, Canadian Senator and Special Envoy to the Commonwealth Hugh Segal was in Colombo for a round of meetings to ascertain the ground situation in Sri Lanka. Upon return to Ottawa, Segal was to brief the Canadian Foreign Minister on what Canada’s level of representation should be at the summit in Colombo. Segal also functions as a current member of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group.
Segal vs. GL
Last Friday, Senator Segal presented a lecture at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies titled ‘The Commonwealth as a force of good’. A few weeks ago, British Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Alistair Burt also presented a lecture at the same venue, which is becoming the site of several minor spats between officials from Western capitals and the Sri Lankan Minister of External Affairs who often hosts the event, Prof. G.L. Peiris.
Last week, a comment by Senator Segal, making reference to Sri Lanka’s impeachment of the Chief Justice, drew Minister Peiris’ ire. The Canadian Senator, in response to a question by a journalist, claimed the Canadian courts had made several rulings against the Government on the issue of First Nations people residing in Canada. “We [the Government] have suffered as a matter from our courts but we didn’t impeach the Chief Justice as a result,” the Senator said.
In his concluding remarks, Minister Peiris struck back, saying he took exception to the comments made by the Canadian envoy. “I take exception to this remark which was the only unwarranted and inappropriate remark made. Had I not been your host, I would have reacted more sharply. I would not have dreamt of making such a remark if I were visiting your country. I am appalled and taken aback by it because there is no nexus in this,” he said.
Interestingly, following the end of Minister Burt’s lecture and Q&A, Minister Peiris also delivered a stinging impromptu response much to the surprise of diplomats present. As the Government adopts a hostile attitude to the West, the External Minister has found himself front and centre of a battle against mounting criticism against Sri Lanka by officials from those countries that are increasingly outspoken about issues of concern to them.
Even as the pressure mounted in Geneva, President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared open the new international airport in the South, amid much fanfare.
Interestingly, both Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa were not present at the Mattala Airport opening. In pride of place at the ceremonies were Hambantota MP Namal Rajapaksa, who wore identical attire as the President, and SriLankan Airlines Chairman Nishantha Wickremasinghe. Having endured the sweltering heat of the day, during a prolonged opening ceremony, diplomats and VIP visitors were not offered lunch at the venue. An evening soiree was held, which was only presided over by Namal Rajapaksa.
While the skies maybe mostly bare over Mattala, the new international airport in the remote village in the Hambantota District is proving quite the challenge for wildlife in the area. Monkeys, peacocks and even the odd crocodile are finding themselves inconveniently in the path of the latest instalment in the mega-development drive in the deep southern district that is President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s home base.
For decades, plans to construct a second airport in the south as part of a development drive in the region were shelved because of the threats they posed to the flora and fauna. Bordered by national parks and bird sanctuaries, the area is rich in fauna that has grown used to roaming free in largely uninhabited spaces. The Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport lies in the centre of some 2,000 hectares of elephant territory, and will need to be fenced off from roaming herds to prevent disasters of the scale that will have conservationists baying for blood. A few days before the opening, during test flights at the airport, a crocodile was found close to the runway. At least 15 peacocks and eight monkeys have been dealt with by Airport and Aviation security, lest they cause disruptions to air traffic.
The teething problems for the new airport aside, there are local sensibilities that need to be considered if the authorities consider taking a hard-line against animals in general and peacocks in particular. Hambantota is the traditional home of God Skanda of Kataragama, whose chariot, legend has it, is driven by peacocks. The beautiful bird is increasing in numbers and becoming a pest in the region, but local people will refrain from slaying them because of their role in the Kataragama ethos. In order to keep animals at bay, the authorities are resorting to drumming and firecrackers at night, sources say.
As Hambantota and the rest of the country under the Rajapaksa administration marches towards infrastructural development, nothing will be allowed to stand in the way – not the international community with their yodelling about human rights, not the Treasury’s lack of funds and the persistent denial of loan assistance to Sri Lanka, and not even the animals.