Vociferous to Silent:
Does the international community’s silence during the rule of Yahapalanya mean Sri Lanka is finally on the ‘right’ path, or that we’re finally doing what we’re told to do.
From 2009 to 2014, Sri Lanka was so heavily featured in international news and foreign government feeds that it was impossible to ignore. From the US led resolution, submitted to the UNHRC, to opinions on how the former government leaders should be tried in international courts (one American journalist even explained how the former Defense Secretary could be taken out of Sri Lanka and be tried in a US court in order to remove impediments toward Yahapalanaya rule), to unsubstantiated claims about corruption, the international community seemed to only want to take out the Rajapaksa-led government, whether they had proof or not of what they were writing about.
It was during this time that many analysts in Sri Lanka and around the world began questioning if there was something greater at play. Within the UN, certain states indicated that they feared that the Human Rights Council was being used as a ‘trigger mechanism’ against Sri Lanka. That is to say, a weapon used by more powerful countries to exert pressure on smaller developing countries such as ours. Former Ambassador to the UN, Tamara Kunanayakam, had warned that there was a concentrated effort to achieve a system change in Sri Lanka, and that it had nothing to do with the protection of human rights. Even those far removed from multilateral affairs commented that it seemed like what was trying to be achieved in Sri Lanka was ‘regime change’; to put in place a more west-centric government that would not be so difficult to control as the former president was often seen by Western powers. Of course this could all be considered mere conspiracy theories, and to a great extent during that period, it was considered as such. But three years down from the reign of the Yahapalana Government there are some interesting facts to note.
What the West says, regardless of its inaccuracy, goes
When John Kerry, the then US Secretary of State, declared in 2016 that the war in Sri Lanka was fought against the Tamils, Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who was standing beside him did nothing in his capacity as Minister of Foreign Affairs to correct him; to remind the Secretary that the internal conflict in Sri Lanka was between the state and armed group known as the LTTE, who the US themselves had labeled as ‘terrorists’. To add to Minster Samaraweera’s list of erroneous conduct, Sri Lanka became a co-sponsor of the said resolution – which even likeminded country delegates have noted was an imprudent and unnecessary move. During the same visit, Secretary Kerry further remarked that the US would send their own advisors on commerce and trade matters to assist the UNP-led government. It would therefore make perfect sense for Minister Samaraweera to be given over the finance portfolio, considering that everything that required to be done by the Americans in terms of the UNHRC resolution was done while he headed the foreign ministry.
International Community’s double standards
A quick Google search will show anyone the level of international media exchange during the presidential tenure of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Details such as the success of the rehabilitation efforts or how civilians who were fleeing the conflict who came into government run camps left with improved health and nutritional levels, were not written on or published. Nor did they write about the success stories of rehabilitated ex-LTTE combatants. Instead, unsubstantiated claims were regularly published with a concerted effort by the western states to make Sri Lanka out as a constant war zone drenched in confusion and chaos. The allegations that were printed as truth are yet to be substantiated. However, the interesting factor, is that with the Yahapalanaya Government, even amidst the rising level of corruption with incidents such as the 11 billion bond scam or with the numerous human rights issues, or with the vilification of members of the former government, the international community remains silent. Furthermore, the current government’s haphazard volatility and infighting seems invisible to the once vociferous international media and community. It may seem that the West takes on the role of watchdog only with governments it can’t manipulate or control.
Doing as we’re told: the way forward for the Yahapalanaya Government
Within the short period of the UNP-led government’s rule, Sri Lanka’s development has been set back in countless spheres. While ministers opt to simply avoid important questions about the future of the country by berating about the former government, the population has become discerning enough within the last three years to clearly see the bluff. The recently completed election is a case in point.
Apart from the hundreds of allegations the UNP made about the former regime clearly amounting to nothing, the current government seems quite content to not address the numerous irreversible blunders and abuses it has carried out these last three years, turning its slogan of ‘good governance’ into a hypocritical caricature. So how then does Yahapalanaya continuously receive the seal of approval from powers outside of Sri Lanka?
There’s full access to literature, statements and reports by the US where they specifically state that they are agreeable to a UNP government because the party is accommodating to their own policies and requests. This is regardless of, if, it is beneficial to the country or not. The former government’s protectionist policies toward development and greater ties with China and Russia were fundamental warning signals to the US, not to mention India. The Rajapaksa-led government made a great many mistakes in focusing inward, often telling the international community to mind its own business. Not a good idea if countries like the US have a vested interest in the country you’re governing. If there still continues to be those who believe that the sheer pressure from the international community post-2009 had to do with the end of the internal conflict or how the country was run, they weren’t and are not still, reading between the lines. Pressure began to heighten as Chinese activity and loan concessions increased, as the World Bank and IMF’s hold on the country began to loosen.
The United States’ displeasure with a foreign government always comes down to their lack of control over that government. And in that sense, the Yahapalanaya government has been making all the right moves. If the US has indeed sent across political and financial advisors to assist the government as former Secretary of State Kerry implied they would, then those deliberations, are happening behind closed doors, devoid of transparency to the public. The repercussions would no doubt be felt too late down the line.
It’s true that we can steer clear of external control if we are economically independent, which is precisely why any technical expertise, agreements, conditional aid or advisors, connected to the US requires careful and transparent consideration. But the UNP’s archaic neo-liberal stance is moving the country in the complete opposite direction. It may be recalled that Minister Samaraweera, in his statement to the High-Level Segment of the 34th Session of the UN Human Rights Council last year stated that,
‘…MCC compact assistance from USA were announced recently, in recognition of the progress made in Sri Lanka in the last two years, and we await their formal approval in the coming months’
The Minister’s unbridled enthusiasm for MCC Compact, viewing it as a reward for a job well done, is precisely the sort of dangerous ignorance that will cripple Sri Lanka’s economic freedom further. Aid from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is an extremely conditional aid programme, used to further open up economies such as ours to imports and foreign capital, creating a dangerous cycle of dependency that is nearly impossible to reverse. Perhaps it isn’t the Minister but those advising the Minister that need a re-education. If the policies of Mahinda Chinthanaya were viewed as protectionist, what the UNP is endeavoring toward is the complete opposite; national exposure – a sort of ball and chain crippling to which only the US has the key. These are of course not new methodologies employed by the US, numerous examples exist where it’s all been done before including Jamaica and the Philippines. Since the Cold War, a myriad of Global South-based NGOs and research agencies such as the South Centre and IBON have warned against developing country governments blindly going into agreements and technical advisory arrangements with countries such as the US, but here in Sri Lanka there still appears to be a self-imposed information impediment. We’re in a backward denial to clearly assess (or ask for help in assessing) the impacts of blind liberalization.
Finding our own path. Forging a new model.
The US’s foreign policy of backing the party that is most accommodating toward it, is the premise of external intervention. Don’t take this article’s word for it, read up on it, do your own research. How long this accommodationism can stand in Sri Lanka however is uncertain. As the public grows ever weary of the UNP’s inability to deliver on its word, and as squabbling increases between the SLFPer President with his strong socialist values and the neoliberal UNP, one imagines that the party may have to shift its policy of playing West-centric lap dog, and actually consider the development and betterment of the country.
While its understood that every party that has been in power in Sri Lanka has tried to be cooperative toward Western Interests, based on the norms of diplomacy and international cooperation, the UNP’s over eager disposition toward accommodation is dangerous to the country as a whole. Accommodationism may serve to leave you comfortably in power internationally unchecked; indeed, the messiness and stress of diplomatic battles and threats, as was the case during former president Rajapaksa’s tenure, is not something any government willingly wants to grapple with. But concessions on the diplomatic front should not result in compromise to national development, especially if one is making those concessions uninformed of long term ramifications. Ultra-liberalization is not the only model of development. There may have been a misplaced idea even as recent as a decade ago that it was, but history has taught us that it was more an ideological tool than a model. And that as a model, it sways hard toward the direction of failure. The former government, under the tutelage of Mahinda Rajapaksa, understood this. There was a forging toward our own model of development. This forging came, of course, at a diplomatic cost, with pressure mounting long before the end of the internal conflict.
With the recently concluded elections, it’s inevitable that a change in Sri Lankan governance is close at hand. International news websites are already publishing headlines that draw attention – not to the election per se – but the Rajapaksa name. and so it begins. From this stand point, Sri Lankans both at home and abroad need to be sharper and proficient within the discourse to read between the lines, going beyond the shortsightedness and name-calling of local party politics, in order to put on a far reaching global lens where we question and dig deeper to understand the place of Sri Lanka in the larger scheme of geo politics. This, regardless of our own party or politician biases. To be able to identify if we are being given external assistance to develop our own sustainable solutions, or, that assistance comes in only if we allow for externally-designed solutions to be put in place. And moreover, that we are able to tell the difference between the two.
By J. Natasha Gooneratne