The Prime Minister of Pakistan arrives in Sri Lanka tomorrow and here is a visitor for whom rolling out the red carpet is richly justified. For Pakistan has been a sincere friend since its creation as a sovereign state in 1947 and Sri Lanka’s Independence a year later. Pakistan’s unwavering support, militarily and diplomatically, in [...]


Welcome to a friend indeed


The Prime Minister of Pakistan arrives in Sri Lanka tomorrow and here is a visitor for whom rolling out the red carpet is richly justified. For Pakistan has been a sincere friend since its creation as a sovereign state in 1947 and Sri Lanka’s Independence a year later.

Pakistan’s unwavering support, militarily and diplomatically, in Sri Lanka’s darkest hour when the island-nation’s territorial integrity was at stake must never be forgotten. Despite Sri Lanka’s closeness to India at an official level and a personal bond between the two leaders at the time (1971), Sri Lanka offered Colombo as a refuelling stop for the Pakistan military at a time their country was being dismembered (and Bangladesh created), but Pakistan has repaid that debt many times over.

It is unfortunate that the Sri Lanka Government is unable to ring the quorum bell and summon all its lawmakers to afford the visiting Premier the opportunity of addressing Parliament, a request that was made from Islamabad. A lame excuse has been trotted out, but it also smacks of an overarching desire not to upset India. When external forces had an abiding interest in the outcome of the 2015 Presidential election, India may have wished this set to rule, and Pakistan may have preferred the former administration in Colombo. Even so, we did quote the Bard, when the President was to visit Pakistan last year; “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried. Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel”.

The recent thawing of relations between India and Pakistan has given a further fillip to the normalisation of ties between the two nuclear powers, and provided a ray of hope for the ‘takeoff’ of regional co-operation in the South Asian region hitherto frustrated by their rivalry to which Sri Lanka has long been a silent spectator to. Recent developments between Sri Lanka and Pakistan, however, have centred on minority Pakistani Christians seeking refugee status here claiming religious persecution, part of a worldwide asylum exodus. Then, there is the narcotics connection using Sri Lanka as a hub for trans-shipments of drugs from Pakistan and its surroundings; and finally, the threat of religious ‘radicalisation’ by Pakistani missionaries in local madrasas.

While the refugee situation seems to be on the wane, and so too the narcotics trade with the arrest of some kingpins on both sides — a business that led to the former Prime Minister’s office in Sri Lanka, the threat of religious teachers from Pakistan needs close monitoring given the global expansion of extremist elements.

Several MoUs (Memorandums of Understanding) are to be signed between the two countries during the VVIP’s stay in Colombo, though usually these are forgotten no sooner the ink dries. Business and investment cooperation between the two countries is minimal but there is scope for closer ties with Sri Lankans visiting Pakistan for holidays and religious tourism — Pakistan being a once Buddhist habitat with ancient historical sites.

Sri Lanka welcomes an all-weather friend next week whose predecessors — from the Bhuttos to the Zia-ul-Haqs and Musharaffs unhesitatingly provided assistance to this country in its hour of need to overcome a brutal, fascist, separatist insurgency not long ago.

Steady the Good Governance ship
The New Year dawned a year ago with the people jettisoning ‘the known devil’ and welcoming ‘the unknown angel’. A new President was elected against the run of play and hopes were high that good governance, as solemnly pledged, would be the order of the day. But as with all great expectations meeting them is difficult to match.

If there is freedom of speech and expression in the air such freedom that was ushered in has taken a new turn — from slanging matches between ministers to budget proposals being changed on the run to street protests and strike threats by trade unions to throwing undergarments at visiting pop stars. These are arguably reactions to years of suppression. This new freedom has probably gone from the sublime to the ridiculous.

There was high thinking in bringing in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution to reduce the powers of the Executive President — the next best thing to actually abolishing it as promised. However, what was eventually approved turned out to be about the worst piece of legislation passed by Parliament since Independence. This became what was later to reflect the way the National Unity Government progressed in 2015 and one is not too sure if things will be any different in 2016. There is a cacophony of voices in this coalition, and no one knows for certain who is running the Government. Earlier, we had authoritarian rule, a Master Chef so to say; now we have too many cooks.

This may not be too bad given the country’s tendency to breed all-powerful rulers who lose track of what is right and what is wrong, and it may be good to have a separation of powers; checks and balances. Yet ambitious goals have been way off target. The sharp divide between the two main parties may have narrowed but a ‘you scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours’ policy has emerged. The instances of bringing the rogues and rascals of the previous regime to book have been few and far between. As one investigator aptly put it; “we have been able to pluck only the fruits from the branches closer to the ground — not those from the high branches — which are more difficult to reach”.

Not that corruption has been a monopoly of the previous lot. The Central Bank bond issue that has been swept under the carpet is a textbook case of how those who profited from the previous regime have benefited from the new leaders. Current ministers have been linked to questionable businessmen. Major investigations have been bungled by over-enthusiastic self-anointed crime busters the Government has relied on.

A Government MP has had the audacity to abduct a man and have her own trial and a minister who shouted himself hoarse about nepotism of the previous leaders brazenly appoints his brother to a key post under his ministry while the troika running this Government promising ‘scientific appointments’ to such posts feigns ignorance. It is a policy of “I’ll let your Governor continue if you let my brother continue”. The Government will have to grapple with a host of issues in 2016 ranging from the UNHRC Resolution in Geneva and the security concerns in the North to road accidents, rising crime, the human-elephant conflict, global warming issues, jobs and the cost of living, the falling rupee, the outstanding Indian fishing (poaching) issue, a new Constitution and re-energising the stalled development projects to name just a few.

The President writing to the UNDP Human Development Report 2015 (reproduced in the Sunday Times of December 20) refers to the setbacks to the agricultural sector by the washing away of the top soil in the hill country making land less arable, increasing population and urbanisation, unplanned use of forest land etc. No one will envy Government leaders as they try to put the country on the right footing. There is a sense of despondency that the National Unity Government is merely bobbing about in rough seas and the ship of state is going nowhere. It’s time the ship is steadied and steams ahead. The New Year will have to be a more decisive year in good governance than was the trial run in 2015.

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