This week marks a significant milestone in the calendar of the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government. Their leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa, began his second year in a second term as President of Sri Lanka.
Some of the forebodings during his continued tenure, spelt out this week, have ranged from eager expressions to ridiculous ranting. They have come from his ministers and officials. Easily the most energetic in the cabinet, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa forecast that Sri Lanka's economic growth rate of around 8.3 per cent would rank the country among the top four performing economies in the world. Next to China, he predicted at a news conference on Wednesday, Sri Lanka would be the second best performing economy next year. This has raised hopes. With many an infrastructure development and investment promotion activity in his hands, the next eleven months will reveal how much of what he projected could be achieved.
In marked contrast, Chandrasiri Gajadeera, Minister of Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms, had a rather unusual forecast. He said the country's prisons would soon become attractions for tourists and law students alike. Just hours after Lankapuvath, the government's official news agency, spread the news on Tuesday that a scheme to begin a programme towards this, a major riot at the Welikade Prisons left 26 prisoners and four prison guards injured. It caused damage estimated at more than ten million rupees. The cause for the riot - checks on packets of meals to determine whether SIM cards for mobile phones or drugs in small polythene sachets are smuggled in. What happened speaks of the unsavoury state of affairs in the country's prisons and the inability of their administration to deal with disorder. Ask even a jaded prison official, serving or retired, and they will tell you. Behind the secure walls of the prisons lay a labyrinth of corruption, drug peddling and other vices. Prisoners may look alike in the eyes of the public but money makes some of them a privileged lot. Except perhaps for prisoners who have served a jail term abroad, other tourists to Sri Lanka may not be able to stomach the goings on. They may want to take the next flight home.
|Pro government supporters, some armed with poles, having displaced the media activists from their 'Black January' protest, demonstrating in front of the Fort Railway Station. Pic by Saman Kariyawasam
Mass Media and Information Minister Keheliya Rambukwella had some words of advice to spokespersons and media coordinators in the State sector including those in ministries when he met them this week. When certain allegations are levelled against the government, he opined, "relevant facts and clear evidence" were freely available to prove those allegations were wrong and fabricated. He lamented that the relevant institutions did not act promptly and communicate "the truth" to the media on time. Though he has been accused of 'washing linen of the government,' he declared that he was doing that according to his conscience. Those were, of course, instances where news reports were either printed in the media or aired on television and the radio.
There was a different response last Wednesday when media organisations representing workers and journalists wanted to hold a peaceful protest on the promenade outside the Fort Railway Station. Police, as has become the practice now, failed in their attempt to obtain a stay order and were directed by a Magistrate to ensure traffic is not disrupted on the road outside. He allowed the protest. However, an estimated 1,500 strong pro-government group, some armed with clubs, crowded the promenade. Fear of a confrontation made the media groups to move to Lipton Circus where the protest was concluded peacefully. Yet, they were watched by hundreds of armed police officers clutching rifles and tear gas guns, hiding behind a church.
Titled "Black January," so named since most journalists were attacked during that month over the years, the event received greater worldwide publicity in the light of the venue being occupied by pro-government supporters. It was also closely monitored by western diplomatic missions in Colombo. Besides those in the official media, they included local councillors and trade unionists. The media organisations also won some backhanded compliments when they were accused by sections of the state media of trying to destabilise the government.
"We have no hidden agenda. We are only fighting for media freedom in the country," declared Gnanasiri Kottigoda, the Convenor of the Free Media Movement (FMM). He said it has become customary for those in the government to accuse anyone who voiced a differing, discomforting opinion or protested peacefully to be branded as an LTTE sympathiser, the lackey of a foreign organisation or a terrorist. He asked how a group of some 600, mostly journalists, who took part in the protest could destabilise a powerful government with a two thirds majority.
The move comes at a time when the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said the press freedom index for Sri Lanka for last year had fallen to 163 out of 179 countries. In the 164th position is Somalia, widely regarded as a failed state. In 2010, Sri Lanka stood at 158. However, sections of the UPFA may take consolation in the fact that United States suffered a drop by 27. This was after journalists were arrested during Occupy Wall Street protests.
The US was ranked at 47 last year as against 20 in 2010. Britain also suffered a drop of nine ranking -- 28 as against 19 in 2010. The rankings are based on a country's score in a 44-question survey covering areas including violence against journalists, censorship laws and freedom of the internet. As has been the case in each of the surveys put together over the past decade, Scandinavian countries dominate the top of the table, with Finland and Norway taking joint top spot this year. Meanwhile, Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan make up the bottom three for the seventh year in a row. Niger climbed 75 places to 29th after a "successful political transition".
Another remark that amounted to building castles in the sky came from Parakrama Dissanayake, a senior Director of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). He declared this week that a special unit in his organisation had been tasked to educate schools countrywide on aviation. The motive appears to be to promote piloting as a career among school students in rural areas. The programme is indeed a lofty ideal. However, why almost all rural schools are unable to produce a pilot is due to the lack of facilities to teach science. Thus, the prime need first is to improve facilities in rural schools in the form of science labs and qualified science teachers. Most children do not even have the facility in remote rural schools to ride a bicycle leave alone own one. Some still come to these schools in bullock carts. Here is an instance where an official is placing the cart before the bull.
Whilst Basil Rajapaksa's projections are based on his own confidence, backed by hands on experience, there are both ministers and officials who are promising veritable fantasies in dreamland. Though it is not something unusual, there is still a difference. During successive governments, such unrealistic promises were outweighed by realism and fact-based projections. However, now it appears to be the other way around. Yet, in a nation that boasts of a literacy rate of nearly 90 per cent, educated and enlightened by a sweeping communications revolution, those who promote utopian ideals do not realise they are not believed but laughed at. Thus, it is the credibility and image of the government that eventually suffer. That may not be good news for President Rajapaksa. He may have to rein in his ministers and officials from embarrassing him and his government.
Yet, it may only be a smaller cause for concern. There are bigger worries, both domestically and internationally, that are formidable challenges for him. In fact, last Wednesday he made a bold announcement at the weekly cabinet meeting to tackle governance issues within the government. Even if it was not formally announced by official spokesperson and Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, the move was welcomed by ministers. Noting that he has great respect for parliamentary traditions and being a democrat, he wanted ministers to study the latest report of the COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) and initiate prompt action. He said that officials named in the report for being responsible for irregularities, mismanagement or alleged corrupt activity should be summoned and questioned.
If anyone is found guilty of such activity, immediate action should be taken. Rajapaksa said he did not care whether the persons concerned worked for him or the government in 2005, or were supporters or not. The ministers should deal with them sternly. If the government had acted on the previous Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha COPE report, and then acted on the latest one, it could have killed two birds with one stone, he pointed out. The latest COPE report came under the chairmanship of D.E.W. Gunasekera. He led a 30-member team of both UPFA and opposition parliamentarians. He tabled the 176-page first report dated December 1, last year, in Parliament. That last report by COPE dealt with 152 state corporations, statutory bodies and other institutions.
Whilst ministers will no doubt be able to take to task errant officials, there is still an area where they will remain helpless. This is particularly in respect of ventures where the losses are infinitively high. An example, previously reported, is the gigantic waste of public funds on the fledgling Mihin Lanka (Pvt.) Ltd. The losses listed by COPE are as follows: (a) 2007/2008 - Rs 3,356 million, 2008/2009 - Rs 4,657 million and 2009/2010 - Rs 5,722 million. The COPE has noted that the current liability of the company is Rs 2.4 billion and pointed out that figures furnished by the company are different from those provided by the Auditor General's Department. The company has also submitted insufficient evidence. The COPE has also observed that the company has not paid interest on a loan of Rs 500 million obtained from Airport and Aviation Services. It has also obtained a bank overdraft amounting to Rs. 381.7 million. The country's national carrier, SriLankan Airlines had suffered a loss of Rs. 9.3 billion during the financial year 2008/2009. For the same period, a net loss of Rs. 352.89 million has been incurred on Fuel Risk Management Programme.
Another glaring example has been the shocking goings on at Sri Lanka Cricket, an issue which was also reported earlier. The shameful revelations include the loss of the compact disc (CD) containing accounts of the World Cup Cricket tournament, part of which were held in Sri Lanka in 2010. The following SLC shortcomings have been listed. (i) Total liabilities being Rs. 6.1 billion, with the total assets were only Rs. 3.1 billion. (ii) Requesting of a loan from the Bank of Ceylon. (iii) Income receivable from the International Cricket Conference (ICC) not yet being recovered. Payment of Rs. 650,000 has been made to some officers for "doing a good job". The COPE observed that the initial estimate for construction of three playgrounds - Hambantota, Pallekele and Kettarama - had been Rs 3.3 billion where the total expenditure had been Rs. 7.18 billion.
Just two weeks ago, COPE Chairman and Minister D.E.W. Gunasekera told a group of ministry secretaries that there was an urgent need to enforce financial integrity and accountability in the state sector. As Chief Accounting Officers, he said, the secretaries to ministries should take responsibility for financial transactions. He made special mention of the financial irregularities at Sri Lanka Cricket. Gunasekera made it clear that the secretaries had the authority to seek the help of state investigating arms including the Police and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption on matters relating to financial irregularities.
Another area of difficulty for ministers would be dealing with colleagues and their deputies. In one instance, a former Minister had taken vehicle bearing number 65 - 4013 from the State Timber Corporation and had not returned it despite several reminders. In another, the COPE noted that an expenditure of Rs. 9,292,676 has been spent by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority to carry out repairs to the official quarters of a former deputy minister who had no connection with the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. At the Telecom Regulatory Commission, a contract for Rs 22.2 million has been awarded to a private company only to prepare the Corporate Plan "which is behind quality". The catalogue of irregular financial deals and how officials and politicians have helped them is voluminous.
On the international front, with just three weeks to go for the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in Geneva, pressure is building up on the government. Last week, Steven Ratner, a member of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's panel that probed alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, addressed an audience in Geneva. It was at an "off-the-record" event organised by the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. The event was attended by several diplomats accredited to the UN in Geneva as well as international organisations. According to reports reaching the government, Ratner had belittled the final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).
He had claimed there was "credible evidence" that the Sri Lanka government had not discharged its responsibilities on accountability issues. The event has once again brought to the fore the ineffectiveness of Sri Lanka's diplomatic missions. The office of Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative at the UN, when questioned by the External Affairs Ministry (EAM) in Colombo, had explained that no representative attended the event since there was no invitation. However, it has now come to light that diplomats from some countries including China and Afghanistan had taken part though no invitations had been extended to them. The Sri Lanka mission has also explained to the EAM in Colombo that the proceedings of the event would be posted on the website of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. However, diplomatic sources in Geneva confirmed yesterday that the event was "off the record".
Last Monday, Canada's Foreign Minister, John Baird, addressed the Royal Commonwealth Society in London on his government's foreign policy. He made reference to several trouble spots in the world and how Canada had reacted. Making his speech from the Mandela Hall, Baird said, "Some of the world's poorest and smallest countries are among our Commonwealth cousins. Solidarity with them, in support of enterprise, investment, aid and development absolutely requires firm resolve on the issues of disagreement and discord.
We see the important role the Commonwealth can play, and we cherish the fundamental values it was built upon. That is why we cannot sit idly by and watch these values be undermined." The fact that Baird made no reference to Sri Lanka prompted the Royal Commonwealth Chairman, Peter Kellner to say, "Your speech on human rights was remarkable. Thank you very much. However I noticed that you didn't mention Sri Lanka specifically in this speech. You have been very vocal on that country's human rights record. Where do you think we as international community, the Commonwealth, should go from here with regard to Sri Lanka?"
Replied John Baird: Our Prime Minister and I as Foreign Minister of Canada have been highlighting issues and the deteriorating record on human rights in Sri Lanka at many international fora. We have three areas of concern: (1) Address the accountability issue of what went on at the end of war back in 2009 to the satisfaction of all in Sri Lanka and the international community; (2) Begin a process of 'genuine' reconciliation with the minority Tamil community; (3) Quite frankly there is a 'growing authoritarian trend' by the government in Colombo. We are working with like-minded governments in the region and others to see how to improve the situation in Sri Lanka. We will continue to engage them and the government of Sri Lanka.
Q - Dr Raj: Hon, Minister I wish to start with Mahatma Gandhi's quote before I put my question; "The Weak can never forgive, forgiveness is the attribute of the strong". In Sri Lanka unfortunately the strong is continuing with its oppression…You having championed on human rights, women rights and other minority rights, are these only in the realm of words and sentiments, can you and the International community be able to show any action? Thank you.
Baird: I have a plaque of ten quotes from Mahatma on my table at the Foreign Ministry. I have been highlighting some of our past actions in South Africa during the apartheid regime and been very clear to the world in many fora of our policy on Sri Lanka.
Q - Dr Shiranee Joseph: I just want to know where you are getting this information of women being abused and others in Sri Lanka. What is your source of information?
Baird: Our main source is our embassy in Colombo. However we also get information from NGOs, media organizations, local institutions and others. However the main source is our post in Colombo.
Present at the event was Sri Lanka's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Dr. Chris Nonis and a group of High Commission officials.
It is not immediately clear to the government how issues related to Sri Lanka will play out at the UNHRC sessions. Ahead of the previous sessions in September, last year, the United States sought Sri Lanka's consent, as required, for an "interactive dialogue", at the Council. The government, however, did not give its consent to such a request. Such a 'dialogue' would have meant the placing of both the reports of the UN Panel of Experts (PoE) and the LLRC on the Council agenda at the upcoming sessions. That was to facilitate a discussion.
On Thursday, External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris told a news conference that the final report of the LLRC would not be tabled at the UNHRC sessions. He, however, did not clarify the reasons for such a move. According to highly-placed government sources, the move stems from Sri Lanka's position that the LLRC was an 'internal Government of Sri Lanka' investigation, much in line with the government's thinking that the PoE is an internal UN investigation for the Secretary General. However, these sources said should any issue concerning Sri Lanka be raised, the country's delegation has been mandated to produce the report and argue the country's case.
Heads of Sri Lanka diplomatic missions have already handed over copies of the LLRC report to the foreign offices of the countries to which they are posted. For this purpose, the External Affairs Ministry in Colombo air freighted the copies. Similarly, the spokesperson for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in New York this week that it was up to the member countries of the UN to decide what to do with the report of the Panel of Experts. This is on the basis that copies of this report too had been handed over. Thus, a scenario that could bring a discussion on Sri Lanka could evolve only if a member country of the UNHRC moves a resolution or raises issue. The government is yet to receive firm indications with regard to this matter.
The United States, which earlier proposed an "interactive dialogue", has pressed the government through diplomatic channels that it should address 'accountability issues'. The US position is learnt to have been reiterated by officials who have been visiting Colombo in the recent weeks. They include Dr. Alyssa Ayres, Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, and Thomas O. Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy in the Department of State. Another US official who visited Sri Lanka was Holly Vineyard, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa, the Middle East and South Asia in the Department of Commerce. Her visit is learnt to be to brief her counterparts in Sri Lanka about the US sanctions on Iran, a subject that has drawn strong protests from a section of the cabinet.
Those who are not in favour of the sanctions argue that Sri Lanka should follow India's example and not pay heed to the 'unilateral' sanctions. A US Treasury official is also expected in Colombo to brief the government over matters relating to the sanctions issue. Also expected in Colombo is Stephen Rapp, United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes. He has already sought a visa from the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington DC.
Nevertheless, President Rajapaksa is not taking any chances. He wants to reach out to as many members of the UN Human Rights Council as possible. The current members are Angola, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chile, China, Congo, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czech Republic, Djibouti, Ecuador, Guatemala, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, Peru, Phillippines, Poland, Qatar, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Uganda, the United States of America and Uruguay.
External Affairs Minister Peiris has already toured Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Mauritania though he skipped South Africa. The tour came as the ruling South African National Congress was celebrating its centenary. He had chosen to boycott the event after it was found that the UK-based Global Tamil Forum was taking part. When the exclusive front-page report appeared in the Sunday Times of January 8, Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in Pretoria Shehan Ratnavale was asked to attend the event - a move that showed that the conduct of Sri Lanka's diplomacy abroad was ad hoc.
Rajapaksa has assigned three cabinet ministers - John Seneviratne, Dilan Perera and Keheliya Rambukwella -- to travel to capitals of member countries of the UNHRC. They will meet tomorrow at the External Affairs Ministry to finalise their itineraries. With barely three weeks to go for the Geneva sessions, winning the support of UNHRC members has become an item of top priority. This is notwithstanding the absence of a clearer picture in the External Affairs Ministry over what would happen at the sessions.
For Rajapaksa, domestic challenges, compared to his first year, have increased. There is both student and trade union unrest. Problems of law and order are on the rise. Another fuel price hike would become extremely inevitable if sanctions on Iran take full effect. The International Monetary Fund has warned that it would be the third world countries that will be most hit.
Yet, the silver line for Rajapaksa is the absence of a vibrant opposition. Not surprisingly, there are murmurs in the so called reformist group of the main opposition United National Party (UNP) to 'kiss and make up' with their leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. That no doubt would be on the leader's terms. Even then, it will still be a galaxy away from offering a strong opposition to the Rajapaksa administration. As he continues his second year in a second term, that is both the strength and the weakness for Rajapaksa and his UPFA government.