Speaking on Basil Rajapaksa’s maiden budget, Trade Minister and cabinet colleague Bandula Gunawardena said the finance minister had done something “that nobody else has done.” That is indeed true. But I seriously doubt Minister Gunawardena and I were on the same wave length, so to speak. I too thought that the fourth Rajapaksa sibling to [...]


Making friends or losing them


Speaking on Basil Rajapaksa’s maiden budget, Trade Minister and cabinet colleague Bandula Gunawardena said the finance minister had done something “that nobody else has done.”

That is indeed true. But I seriously doubt Minister Gunawardena and I were on the same wave length, so to speak. I too thought that the fourth Rajapaksa sibling to be in the Cabinet has ‘done something’ which even the record-breaking finance minister Ronnie de Mel who presented 10 consecutive budgets, had not done.

During the past several decades, from my school days at Mt Lavinia in the mid-fifties through the many years I covered parliament as a sketch writer for the Daily News and all those years abroad, I used to listen to or read budget speeches whenever I could to try and determine where Sri Lanka was heading, indeed if it was heading anywhere other than down.

I cannot recall any finance minister other than Basil Rajapaksa begin his budget speech the way he did. It was a eulogy to his uncle DM and his father DA and the rural habitat where he grew up. He spoke of the contribution his antecedents made to the country’s pre and post-independence politics. He paid tributes to his Medamulana family and their contribution to modern day Sri Lankan politics.

One can understand why he wanted to revive memories of the Rajapaksa brothers DM and DA and what they meant to the people of the deep south in their day. Not many of today’s generation would be aware of the political and social history of the times those two Rajapaksa’s lived in.

What one finds difficult to fathom, however, is why he thought it was appropriate to included this in a budget speech. Unless of course Basil Rajapaksa sensed the depleting public popularity of the political party he worked assiduously to put together after brother Mahinda’s defeat at the 2015 presidential election.

He cannot be politically insensitive to the current social protests that greet the SLPP even from the rural heartland that should form the backbone of the party and toughen its sinews rather than join other segments of society trying to strip it sinew by sinew.

Harking to the glories of the ancient past is a common trait among some Sri Lankans who wish to shut their minds to the present. When Basil Rajapaksa spent several minutes of his maiden budget speech trying to revive old memories and recall that 6.9 million voted for brother Gotabaya he was trying to give public consciousness a booster vaccination with the forthcoming provincial council elections well in mind. That is if PCs do not fall by the wayside of our new constitution as a means of resurrecting a cash-strapped economy though the real reason might lie elsewhere.

While one might excuse the finance minister for using the budget speech for engaging in a propaganda boost, however inappropriate the occasion, there was another reason for my surprise, Rajapaksa in reading the English version of it later.

“We have expanded our diplomatic relations with bilateral and multilateral agencies as never done before in our history”, he said in section 3.3.

Note that he does not mention nation states but only agencies (some of which he names) which are generally technical and financial aid providers. He then adds that “all agencies aligned with the United Nations are working very closely with us.”

While all this sounds quite hyperbolic—I suppose the office of the UN Human Rights High Commissioner is included in this list—what is troubling is that the phrasing scrupulously avoids any mention of where we stand in our relations with the 193 member-nations of the UN.

Lest this government and its officials try to sweep Sri Lanka’s pathetic performance at the Geneva sessions of the UN Human Rights Council last March when Colombo was decisively defeated on the Sri Lanka Resolution, we have not recovered from that humiliation.

Despite the arithmetical jiggery-pokery of a couple of ministers and state ministers to assert that the resolution against Sri Lanka was defeated by adding the abstentions at the voting to the votes for Sri Lanka, such sleight- of- hand insults those who abstained such as India, Indonesia and Nepal from  South Asia-Southeast Asia, does not go unnoticed in their chanceries.

However much efforts are made to blow up for publicity purposes, bilateral meetings held in the wings of the UN General Assembly or at international conferences such as the recent climate change conference in Glasgow, such diplomatic courtesies do not automatically translate into votes or open support at crucial times.

On the day that Basil Rajapaksa was delivering his maiden speech and extolling our diplomatic achievements, Sri Lanka was crushed by another ignominious defeat at the UN in New York where member states were voting to elect 34 new members to the International Law Conference for a five-year term.

Whoever decided to nominate Mohan Pieris, a former attorney-general and a former chief justice (though some did not recognise its legality) probably thought he was doing our man, now Sri Lanka’s permanent representative to the UN, a favour not realising it was a serious error of judgment.

It is not just Sri Lankans who seemed to be aware of Mr Pieris’s performance in the posts he held for those critical of him, especially human rights activists, seemed to have lobbied strongly against his candidature.

Of the 11 candidates who vied for the eight seats for Asia-Pacific, Mohan Pieris was unelected having come 10th with 112 votes of the 191 valid votes cast. It was a clear rejection of Sri Lanka’s position on human rights and the rule of law which has been haunting us and showed that no amount of bilateral meetings with member states would efface Sri Lanka’s record on key issues.

Nor has its bogus foreign policy in the last couple of years convinced many as the voting continues to show.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London)


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