Sri Lanka

From Strong to Soft

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Jave­ria Shakil

It is said that in pol­i­tics two fac­tors of­ten de­ter­mine a politi­cian’s ca­reer tra­jec­tory – his words and his body lan­guage. Some­times they are even more im­por­tant than ac­tion. But even among the two, it is the body lan­guage that at times speaks louder and clearer than words.

By this stan­dard, Sri Lankan Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa has come across as a very con­fi­dent head of state in his pub­lic ap­pear­ances dur­ing the last few months. Mahinda Ra­japaksa has ap­peared in com­plete con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion in the company of some of the big play­ers of in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics such as the In­dian prime min­is­ter, the prime min­is­ter of Ja­pan or the pres­i­dent of China,

The ques­tion is why should he look oth­er­wise?

Po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst from inside and out­side Sri Lanka be­lieve that the last year was quite rough for Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa. Although Sri Lanka suc­cess­fully hosted the Com­mon­wealth Heads of Gov­ern­ment Meet­ing, its ef­forts to in­ves­ti­gate the war crimes – al­legedly com­mit­ted by the Sri Lankan Army in the last few months of the decades-long civil war – were con­tin­u­ously ques­tioned by world lead­ers. Some Com­mon­wealth coun­tries even boy­cotted the CHOGM for the same rea­son.

In what can be termed a par­tic­u­larly em­bar­rass­ing diplo­matic blun­der, UK Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron harshly crit­i­cized the Sri Lankan gov­ern­ment for not do­ing enough to bring the cul­prits to book. Around the same time, lead­ing UK news­pa­pers, such as the In­de­pen­dent and the

Guardian, ran news sto­ries with eerily sim­i­lar head­lines: ‘Who is Mahinda Ra­japaksa?’ (The In­de­pen­dent) and ‘Mahinda Ra­japaksa: Sri Lanka’s sav­ior or war crim­i­nal?’ (The Guardian).

How­ever, de­spite mi­nor hitches, the meet­ing took place and was

Ra­japaksa has proved him­self in­vin­ci­ble time and again. He has man­aged to gov­ern the coun­try on his terms de­spite the pres­sure of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to con­duct a fair and trans­par­ent in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the al­le­ga­tions of war crimes.

largely suc­cess­ful. But the months that fol­lowed were rough for the coun­try – and more so for its pres­i­dent.

The calls for a cred­i­ble in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­creased as time passed. Another rea­son for the mount­ing in­ten­sity was the an­nual meet­ing of the United Na­tions Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion in Geneva in March 2014. The U.S. had an­nounced that it would present a mo­tion against Sri Lanka for se­vere vi­o­la­tions of hu­man rights. There was an un­prece­dented build-up to the meet­ing with the U.S. proac­tively lob­by­ing to get as many coun­tries to vote in the res­o­lu­tion’s fa­vor as it could.

Many coun­tries had al­ready ex­pressed their will­ing­ness to side with the U.S. res­o­lu­tion. Sri Lanka’s clos­est and cru­cial neigh­bor In­dia had also given mixed sig­nals. While In­dia re­frained from vot­ing in the res­o­lu­tion’s fa­vor, it was nonethe­less passed at the Geneva meet­ing, paving the way for an in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­le­ga­tions of war crimes in the fi­nal phases of the civil war in 2009.

From Novem­ber 2013 – when the CHOGM had taken place – to March 2014, when the UNHRC meet­ing took place, Sri Lanka was in a hard place as it faced crit­i­cism and pres­sures from left, right and cen­tre.

Clearly, the noose around Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa was tight­en­ing. But he did not seem to budge an inch from his long held stance: no coun­try or or­ga­ni­za­tion has the right to in­ter­fere in Sri Lanka’s in­ter­nal mat­ters.

While he was still bat­tling on that front, the state of af­fairs on the do­mes­tic side was not too bright ei­ther.

Com­mu­nal ten­sions had been sim­mer­ing be­tween the Sin­halese Bud­dhist or­ga­ni­za­tion Bodu Bala Sena and the mi­nor­ity Mus­lim com­mu­nity for some time. The con­flict started in early 2013 when the BBS ob­jected to

cer­ti­fi­ca­tion on cer­tain prod­ucts. This cer­ti­fi­ca­tion is is­sued by a group of Is­lamic cler­ics called the All Cey­lon Jamiyy­athul Ulama (ACJU). A com­pro­mise was reached be­tween the ACJU, the Cey­lon Cham­ber of Com­merce and Bud­dhist clergy and it was an­nounced that “the ACJU would stop putting the logo on prod­ucts for lo­cal con­sump­tion but will con­tinue to use them for prod­ucts be­ing ex­ported to Is­lamic coun­tries” where the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion is com­pul­sory. How­ever, the BBS later walked out of the agree­ment and de­manded an end to “the en­tire process.” Giv­ing in to the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s pres­sure, the gov­ern­ment de­clared in March 2013 that the ACJU did not have the au­thor­ity to is­sue the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Although the is­sue was not dis­cussed after that, the ten­sion be­tween the two com­mu­ni­ties thrived.

It cul­mi­nated in the June-July 2014 re­li­gious ri­ots, termed as “the most se­ri­ous anti-Mus­lim vi­o­lence in at least two decades” by some an­a­lysts. As many as four peo­ple were killed, 10,000 peo­ple – 8,000 Mus­lims and 2,000 Sin­halese – were dis­placed from their homes and var­i­ous shops and business cen­ters, mostly owned by the Mus­lims, were looted and gut­ted.

With the in­ter­na­tional me­dia’s at­ten­tion squarely fo­cused on eth­nic vi­o­lence in Sri Lanka, Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa was in trou­ble once again as his party was ac­cused of covertly sup­port­ing the Bud­dhist or­ga­ni­za­tion. The ba­sis of the al­le­ga­tions was the re­ported prox­im­ity of pres­i­den­tial sib­ling De­fense Sec­re­tary Gotabaya Ra­japaksa, to the BBS.

Re­gard­less of the gov­ern­ment’s ef­forts to dis­miss such no­tions, the Sri Lankan me­dia con­tin­ued to al­lude to a link be­tween the two. A Sri Lankan colum­nist Kalana Se­naratne wrote, “It is nec­es­sary not to un­der­es­ti­mate the power of the state. It is a state that has tremen­dous mil­i­tary might. And it is one which is so pow­er­ful that it can ef­fec­tively sup­press any move­ment if it re­ally wants to, and has ev­ery power to do so; legally, con­sti­tu­tion­ally, mil­i­tar­ily, ju­di­cially or in any other imag­in­able way. The fact that it’s not hap­pen­ing with re­gard to the BBS tells us pre­cisely what the BBS is all about.”

Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa faced prob­lems on his for­eign trips as well. Dur­ing the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly meet­ing in 2014, a large num­ber of Sri Lankan Tamils gath­ered out­side the UN build­ing to protest against Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa who was there to at­tend the meet­ing.

How­ever, Ra­japaksa has proved him­self in­vin­ci­ble time and again. He has man­aged to gov­ern the coun­try on his terms de­spite the pres­sure of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to con­duct a fair and trans­par­ent in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the al­le­ga­tions of war crimes or the hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tions’ crit­i­cism of the eth­nic vi­o­lence in Sri Lanka..

While this shows a strong re­solve on his part, it has not al­ways ben­e­fit­ted the coun­try and its peo­ple. Take the mat­ter of the long­stand­ing de­mand of the UNHRC re­gard­ing a probe in the war crimes. In the ab­sence of a proper clo­sure, Ra­japaksa’s party support has dwin­dled in re­cent months. Although his party, the United Peo­ple’s Free­dom Al­liance, man­aged to win the provin­cial assem­bly elec­tions in the south­east­ern prov­ince of Uva, the share of votes dropped by more than 20 per­cent­age points from the last polls in 2009. This is a bad sign con­sid­er­ing Ra­japaksa’s aim of con­test­ing the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion which is due next year.

Per­haps it is time for him to get rid of his ‘strong­man’ im­age and soften his stance on some crit­i­cal is­sues. In fail­ing to do so, he may face the un­sa­vory prospect of say­ing goodbye to his main call­ing - pol­i­tics.

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