So now we know, don’t we! As winter approaches and the temperatures drop in Europe Dr. Harsha de Silva tells a gathering of states in Geneva that promoting and protecting human rights cannot be done overnight. For sheer brilliance he deserves a whole bag of coconuts. Either that or the climate is beginning to affect [...]


This mad, mad world of palanaya


So now we know, don’t we! As winter approaches and the temperatures drop in Europe Dr. Harsha de Silva tells a gathering of states in Geneva that promoting and protecting human rights cannot be done overnight. For sheer brilliance he deserves a whole bag of coconuts. Either that or the climate is beginning to affect him.
If that were all one might have forgiven Dr. de Silva for dipping into his reserve of platitudes and spilling them all over the assembly floor.

Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva

Oh no, not the learned doctor. There is no nation that does not have challenges, and no nation is perfect he said, giving all those gathered a rudimentary lesson in the troubles of the world. If some left the assembly hall shaking their heads it was probably to make sure that they heard the Harvard alumnus correctly. I mean how often would they hear such philosophical defences to justify a government’s failure to keep to its promises? Maybe they hear it almost every day. That assembly would consist of politicians and diplomats who are quite accustomed to constructing their own escape routes and so are familiar when others do the same.

To sound-bite the country out of the quagmire into which our politicians consciously dragged us in by not only co-sponsoring a UNHRC resolution that tied up Sri Lanka in several knots but asked for two years to get its act together and meet the commitments it made, is hardly a credible way out.

That, if I recall, was in September-October 2015, shortly after the National Unity Government was formed, when it decided to toe the line of the two transatlantic partners with whom the pro-western UNP was anxious to build bridges. If the government has failed to do what it promised the world it would do, then where does responsibility lie? Surely not with the world at large!

One cannot entirely blame Dr. de Silva for taking refuge in a bag full of platitudes. The couple of years or so he spent at the foreign ministry would have taught him a thing or two about obfuscation, confusion, red-herrings and silence. Only the other day the foreign ministry issued a statement in reply to a media query about Lord Naseby’s revelations on civilian casualties of the war that showed the foreign ministry’s passion for smoke-screens or was that the work of a political hand trying a quick cover up.

When I first wrote about it in the Sunday Times on October 22 under the headline “Will this palanaya ever thank the lord?” this government was maintaining an undignified silence. The president, prime minister and foreign minister did not have a word of appreciation for Lord Naseby’s revelations at the House of Lords debate though the evidence elicited from the British foreign office was directly relevant and helpful to the position Sri Lanka has maintained, despite Harsha de Silva’s cursory dismissal of it as not immediately irrelevant.

Over a week after the Naseby contribution was highlighted the State Minister wrote to Lord Naseby on October 30th thanking him. Then on November 2 the president put pen to paper and sent the Lord a message of thanks. That is how yahapalana works, not with a bang but a belated whimper. Dr. de Silva’s speech was surely not of his own doing. It seems like the handiwork of officials with some political input in a frail attempt to say why some of the crucial commitments, such as a judicial mechanism to investigate allegations of human rights and other abuses, have not yet been met.

Well all that was in Sri Lanka’s opening statement. Most likely there will be more gems as the Universal Periodic Review discussions continue. But de Silva seems overjoyed that several countries had commended Sri Lanka for the actions it has taken in pursuit of reconciliation and other commitments. As a democratic country, he said, Sri Lanka welcomed robust criticism and debate about its journey towards the full enjoyment of human rights, and sustainable peace and reconciliation.

Later the deputy minister said on Facebook that the global response to Sri Lanka’s progress in human rights achievements was extremely positive and constructive. Maybe he thinks that others have not read the reports of UN Special Rapporteurs and the observations of the EU delegation recently in Colombo. Dr. de Silva might well gloat over what he calls commendations from sections of the ‘international community’. But he appears to gloss over two of the crucial issues which the countries that responded have mentioned – reconciliation and accountability.

He seems to miss the nuanced diplomatic approach with which attention is drawn to these two issues. Reconciliation must not only be pursued vigorously but it must be seen to be done. Take the case of Rear Admiral Travis Sinniah, the first Tamil to command the navy since Rear Admiral Rajan Kadirgamar 47 years ago. It is indeed a strange case. Travis Sinniah was given a one-month extension after his retirement as a parting gift.

This government has never explained why the top navy commander was so shabbily treated when others in various fields have had their services extended for several months or even one year. How shabby the treatment was becomes clearer when one learns of the special treatment accorded to a driver here in London. The driver of the High Commissioner is due to complete his three year duty around March next year. But nearly six months before the term was due to end the Overseas Administration Division (OAD) of the Foreign Ministry has extended his term by one year – until March 2019. The question is who asked for a year-long extension from the OAD and why did the ministry succumb so abjectly to such a demand? They say that even a mobile phone can soften official hearts!

Is Admiral Sinniah who distinguished himself during the anti-LTTE war and could rightly be called a “war hero” unlike some others who receive this accolade, less important than the driver of the high commissioner?

How would the majority of Tamils who had no part in the war and considered the LTTE as an enemy of the larger Tamil community view this insulting treatment meted out to a distinguished navy officer while spouting rubbish about reconciliation?

Here is a man who served the nation against a violent section of his own community. Would anybody seriously believe that this government is committed to reconciliation despite all the clichés that deputy minister de Silva and his political colleagues from that Race Course Avenue cabal might find to describe the great work performed by this so-called “Unity Government” in the last couple of years when discrimination stares them in the face?

Is it scant wonder that the people who voted for this president and the government that eight months later legitimised Ranil Wickremesinghe’s position as prime minister, are confused and bitter at being so badly let down, if not deceived.

Confronted by fuel shortages, roads blocked by protesting doctors, students and assorted strikers, still unsolved garbage problems, flooded roads and rising cost of living the only solace for the hard pressed is to find something to laugh at to relieve themselves of the daily tensions.

Needless to say there is much to laugh at, politicians and their henchmen in particular. The style of good governance called yahapalanaya, the manner in which those appointed to high office conduct themselves and even turn some of the institutions they ‘rule’ over into personal fiefdoms provide enough farce to entertain the dispirited.

Never in the post-independence history of this country, some say, have patients had to consult doctors at street corners as members of the Generally Messy Obstructionist Association (GMOA) went ahead with their weekly strike action.

If the learned doctor (I mean the deputy minister not that Padeniya chappie) wants to know how to protect human rights he should ask that singing IGP Pujith Jayasundara. That is if he wants to be held by the shirt collar and given a good shaking as the man who is expected to maintain law and order did to the lift operator.

All because the man did not meditate but was faithfully performing the task he was assigned. The poor lift operator now has much to meditate about, especially the ways of his police brass and the inaction of the government.

Not only is the IGP forcing people to meditate on the ironies of life but he has taken to speaking on behalf of the president and the prime minister. It was reported that the IGP said the president and PM would not tolerate foreign-funded NGOs. Since when has the police chief turned into the spokesman for the president and prime minister?

At a book launch in December last year the IGP told the audience that there is much criticism of the police and told his officers not to lose their temper or take revenge from people and asked people to display human values.

Well if Dr. de Silva finds promoting and protecting human rights an onerous and exacting task why the job could always be given to the IGP who has his own way of dealing with human rights.

The IGP’s boss Minister Sagala Ratnayake seems to be having problems of his own. One has only to ask President Sirisena who had stories to tell at cabinet. When the three wise men from the UNP went to see the president he had more to tell about his law and order minister who belongs to the same Race Course Avenue cabal.

There is more to tell – from the diplomatic soap operas to Wimal Weerawansa’s eagerness to bomb the parliament (with him in it?) and a cash strapped government paying millions of rupees each month for an unoccupied Agriculture Ministry office.

There is of course that great tragi-comedy of the local government elections with Minister Faiszer Musthapha playing the lead role when he is not dealing with garbage or removing “foreigners only” notices from southern hotels and restaurants. But as the American poet Robert Frost wrote the government still has “promises to keep. And miles to go before it sleeps.

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