Whoever said that the nation is yet to become normal post-Easter blasts need to have their eyes and ears tested – some, even their minds and brains. In which other nation would you have the President and Prime Minister fly out overseas almost at the same time, only weeks after a man-made disaster of the kind and with security agencies not possibly convinced that it would not recur at least over the short and medium terms?
If President Maithripala Sirisena flew out to Tajikistan for the SCO Summit, PM Ranil Wickremesinghe was making one of his none-too-unusual Singapore sojourns at the same time. At one level, it shows the insensitivity, especially of the latter, to the public mood as Sirisena could not have postponed his SCO visit unless he had to cancel it. At another level, the twin-visits seem to be yet another proof of the lack of communication and understanding even on something as silly as planning an overseas trips, leaving aside graver issues of national concern.
It remains to be seen how the nation’s inimitable polity reacts to the twin-visits. Sirisena was incidentally in Singapore (again on a ‘private visit’ ???) when the Easter blasts occurred. He took his time returning. The President’s Office recorded that the delay was caused by non-availability of flights or some such thing.
However, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, the one-time UNP Minister whom Sirisena would not have after the twin-constitutional crises last year-end, went on to ask why the President stayed back in Singapore when the nation was shocked by the Easter blasts. It is not yet known if he has any similar question to ask of his party boss in PM Wickremesinghe, just now.
Over the past couple of years, every time PM Wickremesinghe flies out to Singapore, the political Opposition would taunt him, saying that it was to meet up with ‘Central Bank bonds scam’ accused Arjuna Mahendran. This time round, they have been silent. Is there anything cooking between the Opposition boss and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and PM Wickremesinghe, as recent politics-centric bonhomie between the two has shown?
Now that the blasts are becoming a fading memory faster than the people would have wanted it, the political class is out to play out new and varied games than already. President Sirisena did not cover himself with glory once again when he cancelled a Cabinet meeting, where the PM camp was expected to take up his own acts of commissions and omissions on the blasts and blasts-probe front(s).
Yet, as PM Wickremesinghe said later, the cancellation of a week’s Cabinet meeting did not render the Cabinet or the Cabinet form of governance defunct – and also redundant in any which way. For that the Constitution has to be amended, and no one in Parliament and outside has the time for it, any more, at least until after the presidential polls later this year.
But Wickremesinghe’s UNP and their allies have all the time in Parliament, for the PSC, to paint names black and thick, only because of the parliamentary privileges that they supposedly enjoy. In one of the recent hearings of the PSC, TNA’s Sumanthiran is seen as telling ‘sacked’ Eastern Province Governor H L A M Hizbullah, as much.
For some of the out-of-turn links that Sumanthiran sought to make between Hizbullah’s earlier parliamentary speeches about ‘fighting back’ and ‘river of blood’ if it came to that, and to the Easter blast perpetrators, he may have been sued for defamation and misrepresentation of facts, if made outside the House.
Hizbullah’s clarification that he had made those references in the context of efforts at the re-merger of the North and the East, and the possible consequences, including those by Muslim youth (a la the Tamil youth in the decades past???) seemed to fall (only) on deaf ears. This however should not mean any attestation of Hizbullah’s post-blasts Kattankudy speech, which he refused to discuss in the PSC, citing sub judice as his justification.
It is in this context, the recent EU Ambassadors’ statement in Colombo needs to be read and understood. The Delegation of the European Union (EU) said that it “is deeply concerned by political and religious pressure being directed at Sri Lanka’s Muslim community which is undermining peace and reconciliation in the country”.
As the statement read, “Prejudiced and unsubstantiated allegations repeatedly published by media serve only to fuel intolerance…. We stand by all Sri Lankans working to preserve the peaceful coexistence between all communities, and expect religious and other community leaders to support them and speak out against violence.”
Issued by the EU Office in Colombo, the embassies of France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Romania and the UK High Commission, were in agreement with the statement. What more, the embassies of Norway and Switzerland, which have kept out of the EU for a reason, also attested the same.
The EU statement followed a meeting of the Ambassadors with PM Wickremesinghe. “On that occasion we welcomed the government’s commitment to address hate-speech and to set up a religious reconciliation council,” the statement said and urged the “President, Prime Minister, and all political leaders to reassert the (Sri Lankan) State’s commitment to mutual respect, tolerance, and equal treatment under the law for all, irrespective of faith or ethnicity”.
For all the hidden messages it may carry, the EU statement was as bland as diplomatic missives in the public space have come all along. However, it sends out an altogether different message especially to the PM’s camp. The message becomes clearer when read in the background of all their out-of-the-diplomatic-way backing for Wickremesinghe during the twin constitutional crises last year.
Otherwise, this was the same modus that the EU Ambassadors and the rest had employed while talking ‘accountability issues’ and ‘war crimes’ probe to predecessor President Mahinda Rajapaksa and company. Either the Rajapaksas did not read those hidden messages or did not want to read them, or having read them, did not care much for the same!
Translated, it means that after giving up on President Sirisena over the past years since their blessings helped the duo to come to office, defeating President Rajapaksa in a fairly-fought elections in 2015, the EU seems ready to ditch Wickremesinghe, if that is the only way out. After all, they cannot be seen as standing by and watching in stunning silence when the harassment of the Muslim community continues weeks after the Easter blasts, when they had condemned in no unsure terms, the BBS attacks of the kind under the Rajapaksa regime.
There are of course differences – for and against. One, there was no visible provocation of any kind, leave alone the Easter blasts kind, for anyone to target the Muslim community as a whole under the Rajapaksas. They were all self-motivated and self-serving up to a point and beyond.
But then, there were the faces of the BBS and its boss, Gnanasara Thero, attaching to the Rajapaksa era attacks on the Muslims. No one this time is blaming either Gnanasara or BBS openly or otherwise, for any direct involvement or encouragement of the kind. But then, the absence of an identifiable face or faces is indicative of a greater social malaise. More importantly, it also means that the Sri Lankan State may not have a source to tackle the hate-Muslim epidemic before it became even more endemic.
The EU Ambassadors talked only about the present, maybe also in the context of Sri Lanka’s horrific past of ethnic violence of every kind. That included the BBS attacks on the Muslim community under the Rajapaksas, and the Batti-Kandy attacks under the current regime. They do not talk about the future, which job for them, their trans-Atlantic geo-political boss in the US has always done – and without shying away.
It is thus that when the EU Ambassadors were telling the world about their meeting with the PM and their assessment of the post-blasts Muslim situation in the country, an American Embassy official in Colombo was talking to the media, and about the future. The reference possibly was to a post-poll future, when it would seem, at least the Americans are getting increasingly convinced, about a change-of-government.
For now, the US Embassy official did not want his identity revealed, but then what he said should be enough to upset the divided Government leadership, especially ‘their man’ in PM Wickremesinghe. It may be that the US – and by extension, the rest of the West – did not want the Wickremesinghe leadership to go away, but then they seem to be as realistic an assessor of the ground situation, to provide for post-poll possibilities.
Media reports quoting the faceless Embassy official said that the US “expected future Sri Lankan Governments to respect the international obligations taken on by the current UNP-led administration”. In the same vein, the official talked about democracy and human rights on the one hand and the ‘expansion’ of bilateral relations over the past three years, on the other.
If the two Sri Lankan commitments were negotiable, one against the other, and/or both of them together — but all of it comes ahead of a high-level US delegation’s visit to Colombo for discussing trade issues, including GSP-Plus. As the report indicated, the human rights commitments are to the UNHRC, while issues involving certain Sri Lankan sensitivities relate to the ‘Status of Forces Agreement’ (SOFA), which is purely bilateral in nature.
In this context, media reports quoting the American official said, “It was clearly recognised with regard to the prosecution of US personnel who might commit a crime in Sri Lanka….We will prosecute such persons under US military laws. This avoids political issues that can arise if another nation holds a US military officer. It’s assumed that the fact that wrongdoers will be punished under US military law will deter bad behaviour but this is a very sensitive issue.”
The ‘background briefing’, it could be called so, comes ahead of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Colombo. While Secretary Pompeo would be discussing bilateral and multilateral issues and concerns, including American aid, China and Indo-Pacific, he would also be assessing the Sri Lankan mood, both of the political leadership and the public, about what awaits the nation, and hence bilateral and multilateral ties, after the presidential polls.
Cooperation between Sri Lanka and the US under a future Government would depend on that Government’s interest in working with the United States and on its respect for democratic norms, the official said. Read differently, it could well mean that a post-poll Government, if it were to be identified with the Rajapaksas, for instance, all over again, would have to play by the agreed positions, both at the UNHRC and also at the bilateral levels – and not ‘try to act smart’, as it was seen as doing after taking the American help, among others, to neutralise the LTTE militarily and yet not heeding Washington on other issues or bilateral and multilateral concerns….
Suffice is to recall how ahead of the US-sponsored UNHRC resolution and vote, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote personally to Rajapaksa’s Foreign Minister, G L Peiris, inviting him for talks, to sort out issues. Not only did Peiris not go to Washington, or even invite Secretary Clinton to Colombo or a third-venue, for talks, he did not even respond to her missive for months together….
Some diplomacy, some messaging….
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)