The Ministry of Defence this week held an international symposium, which was largely to portray Sri Lanka's success story in defeating the scourge of terrorism. Though the intricacies of global politics ensured that some Western countries steered clear of sending representatives, their Defence Attaches nevertheless participated in the conference about, what was for most Sri Lankans, a success story indeed.
The defeat of the military machine of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is not something undervalued by those in uniform even in those countries that opted for a semi-boycott of the event. Some countries had made it known that the LTTE was, in their opinion, invincible. That it was a potent and deadly terror outfit is widely accepted throughout the world, and though it faced the might of an enhanced Security Force of a Government and had limited space to run and hide, the job had nevertheless to be done.
The Sri Lanka Government waged war while some foreign Governments were breathing down its neck. Arms suppliers were limited. The President's oft-quoted remark that his Armed Forces had to fight with one hand carrying a gun and the other carrying the Human Rights Charter is an obvious exaggeration, but he makes the point.
Whether the Sri Lankan model of success is one for the world to recognise in combating terrorism is naturally a debatable subject. The sheen was immediately taken off the victory when the Government was accused of human rights violations during the last stages of the war by both a deflated Diaspora that had backed the LTTE all the way, and sulking politicians and officials from countries who were shooed away, quite curtly, when they tried to intervene during that period.
One of the foreign experts at the seminar hailed the liquidation of the LTTE, and in the same breath added a caveat, that the Sri Lankan model would be one to emulate if only the human rights allegations are shaken off.
If that were so, there would probably be no model in the world to follow. Certainly, not the way World War II was ended with atom bombs dropped on Japanese cities, nor the manner in which wars are being waged today in the Middle East and Afghanistan under the imprimatur of the United Nations, not to mention the many wars in the intervening years which have been the antithesis of defeating the 'bad guys' with human rights uppermost.
Last month's assassination of the al-Qaeda leader in a foreign country by an elite unit belonging to the US Navy -- his body then being dumped in the sea -- was not condemned as a human rights violation but rather hailed by the US administration as a great achievement in its 'war against terror'. The majority of Sri Lankans would, by and large, concur even if they have reservations about America's conduct in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Libya. But it is when the same US Government's State Department begins to hector Sri Lanka on human rights violations with relation to the last stages of the war against the LTTE that it gets their 'goat'.
A little more than 200 years ago, the indigenous people of Northern America, the Red Indians as they were derogatorily labelled used to say "white man speak with forked tongue", referring to the new immigrants to their land. They knew what they were talking about. Shortly thereafter, they were wiped off their lands and the remaining few native Americans are today seen drinking their guts out at reservations earmarked for them.
That said, can the Government of Sri Lanka and its leaders keep spinning the 'foreign interference' bogey as socialist Governments of the past kept up the refrain of the 'imperialist' bogey in years gone by to cover their own sins? The commissions and omissions cannot be so simply placed at the doorsteps of outsiders. While foreign pressure may aggravate the situation locally as Governments find it a convenient whipping element to drum up nationalist sentiment and thereby ignore the need for reforms, there is something in it, if when such pressure is applied a Government chooses to ignore the demands from home.
What is most unfortunate is that, notwithstanding the global interplay of politics, much of the criticism can be legitimate if the Government simply refuses to shift gear from a nation at war to a nation at peace.
Our Political Editor refers to the struggle the Government is faced with at the UN Human Rights Council sessions this week in Geneva. Elsewhere, various adverse remarks are being made about the partisanship of the Attorney General's Department, the independence of the Judiciary and the freedom of the media, or the lack of it, the concentration of power in the Executive Presidency, the continuing militarization of the State despite the end of the war, unnecessary Emergency Regulations and the like that have no co-relation to the recently concluded conflict.
The Attorney General's Department hit a dismal low when it began issuing nollei prosequi (withdrawal of prosecutions) against fraud, rape and murder accused merely because they were politicians from the ruling party. When the politicization of the police and the prosecutors goes beyond a certain level, public confidence in law, order and legal institutions is undermined to a point of no return.
The 17th Amendment of 2001 tried to pull back the country from the brink and salvage what was left of public institutions and resurrect them, but now we have acted retrogressively by bringing in the 18th Amendment to undo the good of the 17th. For the country, these have repercussions, which are not necessarily favourable in the long term.
In and around the Free Trade Zone this week, the bubble seems to have burst. A whiff of a Tunisia or Egypt-style mass uprising took place in the Gampaha District, and the Government was caught out of step. This was a home grown uprising by workers, largely women. There was, almost for the first time, in recent time, the message that the Government would not be permitted to do as it simply wished merely because it is a powerful Government. The days of doing things at its whim and pleasure have been severely tested.