Are the ruling elites in a state of denial over the signs of people’s discontent, manifested in the results of the recent Uva provincial council election? Does the government feel it is on the back foot, and is this discomfiture resulting in an acceleration of serial blunders in the areas of media and diplomacy? Spurred [...]


Hurtling on to the wrong side of history


Are the ruling elites in a state of denial over the signs of people’s discontent, manifested in the results of the recent Uva provincial council election? Does the government feel it is on the back foot, and is this discomfiture resulting in an acceleration of serial blunders in the areas of media and diplomacy?
Spurred by a shift in the balance of political forces signalled in Uva, the UNP appears to have finally shaken itself out of decades-long malaise, put up a semblance of party unity and made some changes in its office-bearing hierarchy. With the main opposition party reasserting itself as a potential force to contend with, a certain balance has been restored to the system, and there is a change in the political mood.

Against this backdrop the shocking and disgraceful reports of an assault on Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in London, Chris Nonis, allegedly by External Affairs ‘Monitoring MP’ Sajin Vass Gunawardena, leading to Nonis’s resignation, continues to develop with bizarre twists and turns. There was no denial of last weekend’s story by Gunawardena till Dr. Nonis broke his silence on Friday and admitted on TV that he was assaulted and had submitted his resignation.

The governmental state of denial is reflected in the attempt initially to black out the news of this incident locally. This was a futile exercise, seeing that in this age of instant communication people have access to social media and banned websites are available through proxy servers. Media minister and cabinet spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella flip-flopped when the media asked questions. To add a final surreal touch to the drama, MP Gunawardena was seen on TV accompanying the president on his trip to the Vatican to invite the Pope to visit Sri Lanka next year.

Showcasing the worst side
In other developments relevant to the status of media freedom in the country, a TV journalist’s jaw was broken in post-election violence while trying to cover an attack on the UNP chief ministerial candidate’s car in Hali Ela. And a media workshop planned in Negombo by a web journalists’ association was blocked, allegedly by police.

Meanwhile two anti-Muslim Buddhist extremist groups, Sri Lanka’s Bodu Bala Sena and Myanmar’s notorious ’969′ movement held a joint conference in Colombo. Sri Lanka’s Muslims warned of possible threats to peace appealed to authorities to deny a visa to 969′s leading monk Ashin Virathu. According to reports Virathu publicly thanked the president for having ‘mediated’ to allow his entry to the country.

The nature of what’s being allowed and what’s being denied nowadays would seem to say something about where the country is heading. It does not seem to be towards the right side of history. It would have been different if the BBS-969 convention had been allowed in a context where others too enjoyed freedom of association, but this is not the case. What are the signals being sent out to the world, and who is making the decisions?

The fact that the Nonis-Vass incident occurred at a dinner in New York when the Sri Lankan delegation was there to attend the UN General Assembly, has served to showcase the worst side of the Sri Lankan political establishment in a very international way.

Obfuscation of reality
As for the messages being conveyed domestically, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether they represent a state of denial, or wishful thinking, or just plain spin. After the UNHRC sessions in Geneva, reports cited External Affairs minister G L Peiris saying that the new human rights chief was likely to be more ‘open minded and objective’ than his predecessor in dealing with Sri Lanka. How naïve is it to expect a change of the individual in office to translate into a change in a process that was initiated years ago, involving several actors?

Upon the president’s return from New York where he met US Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the UNGA, it was reported locally that the US had ‘softened its stance’ on Sri Lanka. Here is what the State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters at the daily news briefing in Washington, in response to a journalist’s question as to whether Kerry signaled he would ‘take human rights less seriously’ in Sri Lanka:

Ms. Psaki: “Absolutely not. I saw the same story. The only thing that was right was that the Secretary did speak with the Sri Lankan president on the margins of the UN General Assembly. He did so with the express purpose of conveying that U.S. policy with regard to Sri Lanka has not changed and it certainly has not softened. We would, of course, like our relationship with Sri Lanka to achieve its full potential, but that will only happen if Sri Lanka builds enduring peace and prosperity for all of its diverse ethnic and religious communities. And that’s why the Secretary, in no uncertain terms, made clear to the president that Sri Lanka needed to take meaningful steps to act like a country that is no longer at war and instead is now building a future that includes all of its citizens. So certainly it had the opposite purpose.”

The obfuscation of reality continues. Details of the Nonis-Vass affair are yet to be made known to the flabbergasted public. The bottomline is that Sri Lanka has lost another loyal, competent and well-educated diplomat. Shortly after a hostile HRC resolution brought against Sri Lanka was defeated in Geneva in 2009, Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka who is largely credited with that victory was sacked. In 2012, Ambassador Tamara Kunanayakam who worked hard to repair the damage and rebuild the coalition in support of Sri Lanka was removed, equally unceremoniously.

UPFA MP Rajiva Wijesinha has been brutally frank in his comments to the media on the New York incident and its antecedents. While expressing confidence that Mahinda Rajapaksa is still the best leader Sri Lanka could have, he says the President is ill advised and misled by those who surround him, who seek personal gain. He charges that there is a concerted effort to undermine the foreign service.

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