Kath Noble

Mumbo Jumbo

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 25, 2012

Why the UNP needs a new leader

Everybody knows about the crisis in the UNP. Of the many elections there have been in Sri Lanka in the last two decades, it has lost all but one. This includes four presidential elections and four out of five parliamentary elections. And it will have the opportunity to lose a few more in September, as the Eastern, North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces go to the polls.

In the last general election, it could secure only 29% of the popular vote, worse than either of the two major parties have fared in a very long time.

The main reason for its failure was identified last year in a survey by the Centre for Policy Alternatives. It found that less than 20% of Sinhalese support the UNP. And although the party does rather better than the SLFP with minorities, it has to compete with ITAK, which is backed by more than 50% of Tamils, the CWC with about 30% of Up Country Tamils and the SLMC and NUA, which together have the backing of some 35% of Muslims. Meanwhile, the SLFP is the preferred party of nearly 75% of Sinhalese – Sinhalese being nearly 75% of the population, this alone gives it a good shot at 55% of the popular vote.

To have any hope of ending its losing streak, the UNP needs to rebuild its base among Sinhalese.

Some analysts argue that the SLFP’s popularity is due to the war victory, so we shouldn’t be surprised by the number or scale of its electoral successes, which have given Mahinda Rajapaksa amongst other things a two thirds majority in Parliament – a feat that was supposedly impossible with proportional representation. That a more balanced distribution of power would be good for the country is widely accepted. They suggest that things will get back to ‘normal’ in a while, even if no action is taken. In other words, there is no cause for concern. However, such confidence in the automatic revival of the Opposition is misplaced. Voters are more discerning than they think. Having ended a war is no guarantee of support, as Winston Churchill found out within months of Hitler’s death – the British public acknowledged his brilliant wartime leadership and were grateful, but many of them preferred to have somebody else in charge of the recovery. Sri Lankans would have done the same if the UNP had presented them with an attractive alternative.

The fact that in the most recent local election – more than two and a half years after the end of the war – the UNP lost strongholds like Kandy that it had held for over five decades demonstrates that there is every reason to worry.

The problem, which I find it hard to believe anybody can fail to see, is Ranil Wickremasinghe.

Ranil really is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s best friend. He is irreversibly associated with two policies that much of the Sri Lankan public – certainly the vast majority of Sinhalese – regard as anathema. Also, Ranil doesn’t seem to have changed his mind about them. These are his enthusiasm for appeasement and his commitment to neo-liberal economics. And Ranil isn’t just keen on these policies. He is a radical adherent. His Regaining Sri Lanka programme envisaged a sharp reduction in the role of the state in pretty much every sector, no matter how cherished. And he wasn’t just willing to do whatever it took to do a deal with the LTTE, he went so far as to ridicule the Government’s military campaign almost until it reached the banks of Nanthikadal.

He has not admitted that he was wrong. Indeed, he often sounds as though he would do it all again if he had the chance.

In addition to being a liability with voters, Ranil is not even able to hang onto the few members his party does manage to get elected. Dozens of his MPs have crossed over to the Government, especially in the last seven years. Of course this is the result of the smart manoeuvring of Mahinda Rajapaksa, but the Opposition too has to be smart. There’s nothing wrong with the Government making use of MPs’ interest in ministerial positions to boost its numbers – this is politics. (Of course it would be good to set a constitutional limit to the number of ministers an administration can appoint.) But Ranil should be able to take advantage too. He should be capitalising on the growing dissatisfaction within the SLFP at the dominance of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family and their plans for his succession.

I can’t think of many other democratic countries in which the same person has been in charge of a major party for as long as Ranil Wickremasinghe. In the UK, Tony Blair took over as party leader just a couple of months before Ranil became leader of the UNP. Even though he won three successive terms for the British Labour Party, in 1997, 2001 and 2005, he was still compelled to hand over power to a successor after ten years as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the British Conservative Party changed its leader four times until it found David Cameron, who finally defeated Labour in 2010. Imagine their fate if they had stuck with John Major! It is standard practice to bring in new faces – and hopefully also new ideas and new energy – from time to time, even when things are going well. Ranil has been party leader for 18 years, almost all of which have been spent out of office, yet still nobody has been able to replace him.

In the circumstances, it is quite ridiculous for the UNP to accuse Mahinda Rajapaksa of clinging onto power, when he has only been in charge for seven years. The worst dictatorship in Sri Lanka is to be found in the UNP.

This is exactly the argument made by those who have crossed over.

The struggle to eject Ranil has been going on for most of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time in office. And it has occasionally looked pretty serious – recall the awful death of Rienzie Algama, who set himself on fire outside Sirikotha in July 2010.

Ranil’s eventual agreement to initiate an annual secret ballot to select the party’s key office-bearers seemed to offer some hope of change. However, the constituency was only the Working Committee, and Ranil easily won the first round in December 2011 – he beat Karu Jayasuriya by 72 votes to 24. (Polling all party members would obviously give a much better idea of the mood in the country than asking a group of people who are either directly appointed by Ranil or indirectly depend on him.) That there were many in the party who were desperately unhappy with the result was made clear by the violence that engulfed Sirikotha soon after it was declared.

Now this violence is being used as a pretext to undo even this very small reform, with the Working Committee announcing last week that the party leader will henceforth be chosen for terms of not one but six years. They say this is essential for party unity.

Frankly, why does the party need to be united in defeat?

In any case, party unity is overrated. Plenty of leaders, from Margaret Thatcher to Mahinda Rajapaksa, and even leaders of the UNP in its more dynamic era, have won elections despite vicious infighting – it can even bring out the best in them.

Six year terms will enable Ranil to stay on until 2018. That is until after the next general election.

This must be music to the ears of Mahinda Rajapaksa. His strategy is clear – he intends to make the UNP face one election after another in the next few years, to keep its members obsessed with party unity. They will think twice about agitating against their leader if they are constantly in campaign mode. And they won’t have the spirit to resist Ranil when they are continually reminded of what bad shape the party is in, courtesy their regular election defeats. Because Mahinda Rajapaksa would love nothing better than to compete with Ranil for the presidency again – his unprecedented third term. He wants to ensure that the UNP never recovers from its crisis.

The UNP can’t play somebody else’s game. It must forget about the Eastern, North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces, which are not very important in comparison with what is at stake in Colombo, and instead refocus its efforts on choosing the most suitable leader and working out a new and more appealing programme for the next general election.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 25th July 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.


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Mud that makes the blood boil

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 18, 2012

What we can learn from the Government’s attempts to control news websites

These days, I rarely feel like thanking the Government for anything. It squandered the opportunity it had post-war to push through a deal with the TNA and put the country on a new and more productive, forward-looking track, preferring instead to focus on consolidating its own power. Now the discussion is back to its old pattern, with neither side trusting the other and neither side feeling like compromise. Meanwhile, it has allowed the law and order situation to get out of control, dependent as it has become on thugs. Politics hasn’t become any cleaner or less violent with peace. The Government is quite happy to associate with thieves, rapists and murderers so long as they agree to join the UPFA. As a result, anybody who disagrees with one of its policies is liable to be threatened or worse, as I said last week.

However, the Government’s stupidity is sometimes quite helpful. We can learn a lot from its mistakes.

Its decision to raid two news websites, for example, was of great use to those of us interested in finding out what is going on in the country. The last few years have seen amazing growth in the number of sources on the internet, and it is quite impossible to read all of them – I would like to thank the Government for pointing us in the direction of the most interesting.

This is exactly what happened with TamilNet when it was blocked during the war, then with LankaeNews. They suddenly developed even greater followings.

The claim is that these internet sources publish stories that aren’t true. The Government calls it mudslinging, which is certainly not a good idea unless the slinger is already wallowing in mud.

I must say that the first bit of mud that caught my eye while checking out the latest targets of the Government’s ire wasn’t all that exciting. Who cares which minister has been having an affair with a ‘popular teledrama actress’. Not me, certainly. Their personal lives are matters for their families, not the nation – people have enough to worry about with what they get up to at the office. Still, I have high hopes that I will eventually find some important mud in the mix.

A unique feature of the Government’s attempts to control the internet is its uncanny ability to attract highly embarrassing condemnation from across the globe while achieving absolutely nothing. Witness the most recent episode, in which the police swooped into the offices of the Sri Lanka Mirror and Lanka X News, arresting everybody in sight (including the tea lady, according to Jehan Perera) and finding precisely nothing incriminating – what, they don’t keep proof of the untruth of their stories in a filing cabinet marked ‘Our Dastardly Scheme To Tarnish The Image Of Sri Lanka And Its Patriotic Leaders’? Even better, they did it using a law that was repealed several years ago! Very professional.

This provided the perfect excuse for all those countries who are far more cunning in their suppression of matters inconvenient to the establishment to issue sanctimonious statements warning the Government about media freedom. Extraordinarily, they are yet to learn that such utterances only persuade people in this country that the Government might not have done what it is accused of and even if it did this might not be such a bad thing.

Still, the Government is concerned about its image, as it needs to be if it wants to avoid action being taken against it internationally. The number of sanctimonious statements is an indicator of how keen the issuers are in their efforts to chastise the Government.

The Government has now compounded its foolish decision with yet another one. It has announced that it is going to levy fees on news websites – Rs. 100,000 for registration and Rs. 50,000 annually thereafter. The suggestion is that these charges will dissuade mudslingers.

Of course this is also very silly. Mudslingers are not short of money, and they will happily pay several times these amounts for the pleasure of attacking the Government. They are also perfectly capable of moving their operations out of the country should that become necessary.

This is on par with the blocking of TamilNet and LankaeNews. Note to the Government – we all know how to use proxy servers!

The Government will not succeed in controlling internet sources, no matter how much time and energy it dedicates to the task. It is not China. Even there total control has proven impossible to sustain (despite a 30,000 member internet police force, as reported in The Guardian), and Sri Lanka’s culture makes it ridiculous to even think of trying to replicate the Chinese model here.

If mudslinging is a problem, the best way of dealing with it would be to encourage the print media. News websites only really become popular when people believe that newspapers don’t contain everything they need to know. For a start, newspapers are better written. Readers need not grapple with sentences like this one from the mission statement of Sri Lanka X News – ‘The people’s campaign against injustice is not just a large crowd, rather its aim is to transform into a massive tsunami of large crowds which does not cease until it reaches the peak of the mountain defeating the evil dragon of the sinister rogues, and lighting the lamp of democracy at that very point’. Sorry?

Newspapers are also more responsible. Although of course there are exceptions to every rule, the fact that the print media is subject to a certain amount of regulation is reassuring for readers. While over-regulation is clearly also a problem, readers do want to know that some kind of standards apply. We don’t actually want to be told untruths.

However, the Government shows no signs of enlightenment on that front either. Last week’s verbal abuse of a well known editor by the Defence Secretary makes this clear. While people who appreciate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa for his role in crushing the LTTE have fallen over themselves trying to excuse his outburst, presenting it as understandable in the circumstances, the circumstances actually make it inexcusable. Undoubtedly it must be very annoying for one of the most powerful people in the country to be questioned about his request to have the national airline use a particular pilot to fly in a puppy from Geneva, especially if he didn’t know that this would result in passengers being offloaded and revenue lost. (By way of an aside: can foreign dogs actually tell who is flying the plane?) We all know Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has a terrible temper. But that is not the point.

The point is that Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed and his killers have not been found. Journalists, especially those occupying the position he once held, are right to be wary of threats. They have not always been empty. The Government claims that it is unable to solve all crimes, which is fair enough, but it is perfectly capable of reassuring journalists that it is at least trying to ensure that no further damage is done. Responding to queries in a measured tone would be a minuscule yet useful step in that direction.

What does it say about the Government that it cannot even be bothered to pretend to be tolerant? Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is not the only guilty party – others who made absolutely zero contribution to the war effort are allowed to talk at will of breaking the limbs of journalists.

Now a journalist associated with one of the raided news websites claims to have narrowly escaped abduction – or as the Government put it to the United Nations with regard to Prageeth Ekneligoda, transport to a heavenly existence elsewhere. I expect the Attorney General has been reliably informed that the people who tried to bundle Shantha Wijesuriya into a van in Nugegoda were just trying to offer him a ride home since it looked like rain.

Prageeth Ekneligoda’s case is another of the Government’s mistakes that we must learn from. He disappeared more than two years ago, and some people have wasted a lot of ink in discussing his capabilities as a correspondent and cartoonist and his extra-curricular activities of various kinds, when they should have been looking for evidence of his incarceration or murder. It was easy for the Government to get away with its barefaced lie that it knew very well that he had left his family and gone overseas.

It was the unusual specificity of its denial of responsibility that was eventually its undoing, since it could not substantiate its statement when questioned during the hearing into Prageeth Ekneligoda’s disappearance – I don’t mind thanking the Government for that too.

Such moments of truth help us to see things more clearly. They show that there’s a lot of mud to be cleaned up.

What I find most extraordinary in all this mess is the lack of confidence it seems to indicate on the part of the Government. The vast majority of people in this country were one hundred percent behind it at the end of the war, and most of them continue to support the administration despite the numerous problems that have emerged, including the rising cost of living. This has now been proven in many different elections. The UNP has been caught up in a desperate and frankly very dull leadership tussle for years, meaning that it constitutes very little of a challenge to anybody, while the JVP too has lost its momentum after its latest split. The Government ought to be feeling free to move ahead with a positive, visionary plan that will guarantee its popularity into the next decade, instead of flailing around like a drowning man. I can only assume that it has run out of ideas and it is afraid of being found out.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 18th July 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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A tale of two patriots

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 11, 2012

On the dangers those who challenge the Government have to face

The threats to senior academic and trade union leader Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri have been condemned by a wide range of individuals and institutions in the last week. He is a well known personality in Colombo. More importantly, as the representative of the national body of university teachers, he is part of the mainstream.

Also, it is clear that the struggle in which his organisation is engaged is in the national interest.

The Government has done its best to present the dispute as being purely about salaries, which it claims have already been increased ‘unusually’. What it does not mention is that these ‘unusual’ increases are nowhere near what was recommended by the University Grants Commission back in 2008 after an in-depth study. Sri Lankan academics are amongst the lowest paid in the world, which is a major problem in recruiting and retaining the best – so many promising young scholars go abroad for postgraduate education and never return. How is Mahinda Rajapaksa thinking of turning Sri Lanka into the ‘knowledge hub’ of Asia when universities in so many other Asian countries – never mind the West – pay their academics so much better? Even when they choose to stay at home, rather than focusing on their research and teaching, they are compelled to search for other opportunities to earn.

The increases are not even as ‘unusual’ as the Government promised when FUTA called off its earlier trade union action in July 2011. Ridiculously, the Ministry of Higher Education is now suggesting that there was no more than a ‘perceived’ agreement, whatever that means – perhaps the Minister had his fingers crossed under the table?

One of the issues the FUTA strike has brought out very successfully is the abysmally low public spending on education in Sri Lanka. Their demand for 6% of GDP is now well known, along with the fact that Sri Lanka currently spends 1.9%, down from 2.9% in 2005. If this trend continues, the country will be on par with the Central African Republic by 2015 or thereabouts. Within the education system, universities are particularly underfunded, with spending down from 0.52% of GDP to 0.27% under Mahinda Rajapaksa. While standards are still high – at undergraduate level – this is only because Sri Lanka has a strong history. It has to be maintained, and of course further developed. Universities need facilities, and they need money to send their academics to conferences and for both short and long courses abroad – this is how globally available knowledge can be brought to Sri Lanka.

The other key demand was for a consultative mechanism. Academics are concerned that decisions affecting both the future as well as the current functioning of universities are being taken without their knowledge, never mind input or agreement, despite the fact that their autonomy is guaranteed by legislation.

This was certainly the case as regards the ‘leadership’ training the Government suddenly decided all students needed to receive from the Army. But there are many other examples.

Perhaps the most important is the Private Universities Bill, legislation that is being pushed for the purpose of attracting investors – foreign and domestic – into the education system. The Government seems to think that there’s no difference between training a country’s doctors and providing its citizens with a range of attractive footwear – the profit motive will act as both an incentive and a guarantor of standards. The fact that this is not the case anywhere in the world doesn’t seem to matter – many countries have very few private universities (e.g. the UK), while even in places where private universities are common, they are often almost exclusively not-for-profit institutions (e.g. the United States). Where for-profit institutions are significant, a strong oversight mechanism is needed to prevent corruption.

Oversight doesn’t seem to be a strong point of the Ministry of Higher Education, as the recent debate about the Malabe Medical College has demonstrated – who wants to be treated by a doctor who hasn’t done any clinical training because his or her school didn’t have an attached hospital?

Easily workable alternatives, such as offering paid places in state universities to the best students currently denied seats, are ignored in favour of SB Dissanayake’s money-making scheme. For example, for every 1,000 students currently taken to study medicine, the district quota system that is so important for promoting equity among the differently-served regions of the country means that 2,000 students with equally good if not better marks are rejected. Just Rs. 1.5 million would cover the cost of their education in state universities, whereas they have to spend Rs. 10 million at the Malabe Medical College.

Some argue that what is needed is not expanding the number of graduates, which is more or less adequate for the state of the economy, but developing vocational training. But apparently that isn’t a field that interests people with money.

It’s not a matter of being against the private sector, but recognising its strengths and weaknesses, and its capacity to upset the whole higher education system if not handled with care.

FUTA wants the Government to restate its commitment to free education. It would be hard to find anybody who would deny the contribution this policy has made to the country’s development and in particular to its  record in social indicators. This is what makes it so difficult to understand why the Government is so determined to change direction now. FUTA is doing everybody a favour in raising these issues.

Its strike comes after months of discussions with the Ministry of Higher Education, and numerous disappointments. One of the triggers was the Government’s failure to accept in full the Grade One admission lists for members’ children – FUTA officials were treated in an appalling manner when they went to discuss the matter with the Ministry Secretary. Now the threatening phone calls have started, and FUTA president Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri has complained that people claiming that his daughter has applied for a job at the Defence Ministry have been asking neighbours about his family’s movements.

This kind of treatment is apparently now the norm in Sri Lanka. People at the forefront of any and every campaign of even mild significance should expect to be harrassed. And they won’t know how far it will go.

I don’t know if the Government is responsible – maybe it’s just an extraordinary coincidence that the targets all constitute some kind of challenge to the administration?

When a similar thing happened to an old friend of mine a few months ago, I asked virtually everybody I know what to do. Nobody had a clue (other than writing about it), but not even the people I asked who are members or representatives of the Government suggested that there was no danger. Indeed, they all feared the worst.

Herman Kumara, convenor of a national organisation of fish workers, came under threat after protests against the hike in fuel prices in February 2012. These were actually spontaneous, since the fishing community wasn’t exactly thrilled to see the cost of their main input go up by nearly 50% – genuinely ‘unusual’ – but the Government decided to blame Herman. He is a prominent activist in the area where the main protests took place and on issues related to the fishing community. The Government knows him well, since his organisation often puts forward suggestions for the development of the sector. Facing strong criticism from both within and outside the country due to the shooting of a protestor, the Government announced that it was all an NGO conspiracy. Rajitha Senaratne named Herman.

Of course what the Minister should have done was name the Special Task Force. Or maybe the IMF. In the end, it was the Government that had decided to increase fuel prices and the Government that had failed to manage the reaction this generated.

Herman believes that Rajitha Senaratne was unhappy with him since he had earlier organised protests against the landing of sea planes on the Negombo Lagoon, one of the Minister’s money-making schemes that benefits only a handful of people who can afford to hop from one water body to another in a jet while jeopardising the livelihoods of a whole lot of other people who spend all day and sometimes also all night trying to catch something they can give their families to eat.

This effort too was in the national interest.

Herman was followed from the airport on returning from an international conference. Having managed to lose the car, he decided it was too risky to go home. Indeed, the same car was later seen moving around his village. His neighbours were questioned about his family, job and vehicles by people claiming that he had applied for a bank loan.

Since he is not an establishment figure, his plight did not interest very many people. He went into hiding.

University teachers are lucky that their trade union president has so many individuals and institutions willing to back him up, to stand up for their right to disagree. They are engaged in an important struggle, and they should continue with it. In addition to ensuring the future of higher education in the country, FUTA must teach the Government that it cannot rely on intimidation to get its way, and that it must act to forever banish the climate of fear that continues to envelop Sri Lanka three years into its hard-earned peace. They should do it not just for themselves but also for those who do not enjoy their status, who will never be heard if they speak up alone.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 11th July 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rural cunning

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 4, 2012

It is not foreign policy but domestic policy that has to change

The cancellation a month ago of another overseas speech by Mahinda Rajapaksa due to protests by the Tamil diaspora has intensified debate on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. Does it need to change? Or is it just being poorly implemented by the country’s diplomats? The President’s spin doctors tried to present his UK visit as ‘extremely successful’ and ‘a substantial advance in bilateral relations’, but not even Lalith Weeratunga can really believe that – shaking hands with the Queen is only significant for people who have blown up her cousin, and David Cameron was so impressed by his meeting with the President that his office immediately felt the need to clarify that it was no more than a short discussion on the way to lunch, of which the main content was the usual reminder of the need to investigate war crimes allegations.

Now even the Government appears to think that something is amiss. It is reportedly organising a workshop for its heads of mission this coming weekend, to educate them on the direction it wishes to take henceforth.

The moment of realisation should have come with the lost vote at the UN Human Rights Council in March, which resulted in a critical statement being issued calling on the Government to do better in its efforts at reconciliation and even accept the help of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – Navi Pillay, sometimes very undiplomatically referred to by ministers as a Tiger sympathiser. Given that the Government won in Geneva in 2009, not just fighting off censure but actually getting members to praise its military campaign, when memories of the bloody end to the war were still fresh, the 2012 defeat was pretty spectacular. The ‘score’ went from 29:12 in favour of the Government to 15:24 against.

This was followed by the very public dumping of the unfortunate Ambassador Tamara Kunanayakam, and the more or less simultaneous attempt by the Foreign Ministry to (once again!) get rid of Dayan Jayatilleka.

However, this time the Geneva vote had nothing to do with the capacities of the representative but everything to do with the behaviour of the administration being represented. It was the result of the Government’s apparently tireless efforts to alienate India, a country that had protected it from interference by the West throughout the final stages of the war, at quite some cost to the Congress domestically – while neither Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa nor her predecessor and main rival Karunanidhi are at all serious about their advocacy in support of Sri Lankan Tamils, they make a lot of noise, and Tamil Nadu is full of people with Vellupillai Prabhakaran bumper stickers (really!).

It seemed to me at the time that India might even have encouraged the United States to put up the resolution against Sri Lanka, to create an opportunity to demonstrate its displeasure. Too many of its ministers and officials had been made to look complete idiots. Throughout the final stages of the war, the Government had promised India that it would work out a political solution that went beyond the 13th Amendment. Yet three years on it has still not happened. Worse, it has now become commonplace for the Government to reiterate its commitment to ’13 Plus’ to each and every visitor from India and then deny it as soon as they are on the plane home. External Affairs Minister SM Krishna suffered this fate in January.

It is easy to imagine nuclear-armed India, on its way to getting a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, thinking, ‘How dare they! That insufferable Mahinda Rajapaksa has less people in his whole country than we have in one of our cities! We probably lose more money in one of our scams than his economy even generates!’

Indeed, some weeks before the Geneva vote, I attended a seminar at a Ministry of Defence-funded think tank in Delhi at which participants said more or less exactly that, albeit rather more diplomatically. They were trying to understand how the Government had ‘managed’ India so effectively, and what India should do about it.

Amusingly or bemusingly, top of the list of explanations was ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rural cunning’. I must admit that I had expected a more practical evaluation. Still, the proposals for action were eminently practical, ranging from pulling out of reconstruction work in the North and East and forcibly repatriating all Sri Lankan refugees to pushing ahead with the Sethusamudram Canal, demanding the return of Kachchativu Island and easing up on controls on radical elements in Tamil Nadu. Pumping in aid and investment to make Sri Lanka more economically dependent on India was also put forward as a long term strategy. Short term, there was of course a suggestion to withhold support in forums like the UN Human Rights Council.

Geneva 2012 could be just the beginning, in other words.

It would not be possible to revisit the arguments for and against ’13 Plus’ here, nor do I care to. What is more relevant is that ’13 Minus’ – which even the JHU accepts as an interim measure, making it an eminently practical way forward – has not been implemented and does not look like happening any time soon.

Indeed, arguments are now emerging to suggest that elections to the Northern Provincial Council had better be postponed indefinitely, since the West may try to use a TNA-led administration to break up the country (Dayan Jayatilleka: ‘Incremental Secessionism – Why Devolution Mustn’t Be Open-Ended’, Groundviews, June 25th). Suspicion of their intentions is quite natural and sensible – they do indeed employ such divide and rule tactics against states they perceive as ‘targets’, as Sri Lanka seems to be for them at the moment. However, they are not the only players in this game. There are other powers who don’t take kindly to regimes who refuse to fall in line as ‘client states’, and they too have a history of intervention.

At the risk of being called well-intentioned (or worse!), I must say I think there’s been more than enough delay already. As the Opposition said last week, let’s have polls in the North before anywhere else. Let’s also rebuild the relationship with India, I might add, since it is the one country that is definitely committed to a united Sri Lanka.

The alternatives that have been floated in the last few months since the Geneva vote are not very convincing. Some are keen on abandoning both India and the West, now seen as lost causes, and pushing forward in the relationship with China. These people are very happy with decisions to close Western embassies and particularly delighted when the Government unleashes its ministerial attack-dogs like Wimal Weerawansa for a bit of their trademark anti-West grandstanding – effigy burning is so much fun, it would seem. They say Sri Lanka doesn’t need the West, although of course the West has the capacity to totally destroy the economy, dependent as Sri Lanka is on Western markets for its exports – note how systematically the West is currently going about the much more difficult task of bringing down Iran by getting all other countries to stop buying its oil.

Sri Lanka doesn’t need India either, apparently, since it is China’s new best friend. Never mind how many other countries are competing for that title, or how only one of the pair is located a mere 30 kilometres away.

Others want Sri Lanka’s new best friend to be the West, to take advantage of their ever growing interest in Asia. There is much talk of the island’s strategic location, and enthusiasm for anything even vaguely resembling military cooperation – these people are perhaps dreaming of converting Sri Lanka into another Diego Garcia, in case Diego Garcia proves too small for the West’s ambitions.

Fortunately, the Government isn’t quite that stupid. Depending on any one power is a strategy that has been proven to be short-sighted – balancing several is vital.

The problem isn’t actually Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and its implementation, although there are certainly many deficiencies in the details – why was Mahinda Rajapaksa even at the UK Jubilee celebrations? It is more of a challenge than that. Diplomacy can do many things, but it cannot change the facts on the ground. Indeed, diplomacy has to be based on them. David Cameron and other leaders may bow to pressure from the Tamil diaspora from time to time, but they will not be able to mobilise the world against Sri Lanka so long as it is clear that the Government is more in the right than in the wrong. This is what the President achieved during the war, and what he must do again if he wants to ensure that his difficulties don’t go beyond the occasional cancelled speech.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 4th July 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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