Red Lights Start Blinking At Rajapaksa Govt
- Pillay issues deadline and hints of international probe
- Warning signal for governing party at PC polls
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa while taking a swipe at some members of the international community during his speech at the 68th UN General Assembly in New York last week also displayed his government’s apprehension against a public uprising. He noted that there was no need for policing by a few states and also went on to say that embargoes and economic sanctions imposed on countries affect a vast number of people apart from those specifically targeted.
However, Rajapaksa’s speech on Tuesday was made just 24 hours prior to a hard hitting oral statement made by UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in Geneva.
Pillay while hinting of an international probe on Sri Lanka set a deadline for the Rajapaksa government to get its act together.
President Rajapaksa meanwhile in his speech at the UN said, “It is disturbing to observe the growing trend in the international arena, of interference by some in the internal matters of developing countries, in the guise of security, and guardians of human rights. Therefore, we continue to witness agitations the world over, leading to violence and forcing political change accompanied by turmoil.”
Rajapaksa made these remarks at the UN after delivering a key promise made by him to the international community and neighbouring India – the holding of the Northern Provincial Council election. The President left for New York when results of the Northern, North Western and Central Provincial Council elections were being announced. The Rajapaksa government experienced a humiliating defeat in the Northern elections and despite the mobilization of the state mechanism, the government has suffered a setback in some of the other areas that went for elections as well.
Despite the UPFA’s electoral victory in the North Western and Central Provinces, the overall outcome of the provincial polls is not too favourable to the Rajapaksa government.
The governing party had lost a seat in the Kurunegala District compared to the 2009 elections. The UPFA had won 24 seats in Kurunegala in 2009 but secured 23 seats in the district this time around. The party has also recorded a reduction in the percentage of votes to 69 per cent this time from over 70 per cent in 2009.
The governing party has faced a similar situation in the Kandy District. After winning 18 seats at the 2009 election, the UPFA has won only 16 seats this time. In the Matale district the UPFA has recorded a drop in its percentage of votes polled from 68 percent in 2009 to 59 percent. In the North, the TNA that faced major criticism by the governing party and the government mechanism on its election manifesto won the Northern Provincial Council by winning 30 out of 38 seats in the council.
The party managed to sweep all five districts in the Province. The Rajapaksa government managed to secure seven seats in the Council and the SLMC won one seat. Following the TNA victory in the North, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who also spearheaded the Northern Spring (Uthuru Wasanthaya) development programme, said that the TNA now has the responsibility of continuing with the development work in the area and to address the issues faced by the people.
He said the government was willing to work together with the TNA and hold discussions within the framework of the Constitution.
He also added that he hoped the TNA would not betray the people by taking them back to a separatist struggle.
“The TNA has managed to win the power in the North, now they have to deliver to the people. They cannot be satisfied by only winning the power,” Basil said adding that that TNA cannot just win the power and palm the responsibilities on the government.
Given these comments made by Basil soon after the conclusion of the provincial council elections, it is evident that the TNA would face many challenges in future where functions of the Northern Provincial Council are concerned.
Basil also dismissed the allegation that the military was engaged in election related activities in the North saying that the outcome of the results indicated there was no military involvement in the North.
Despite Basil’s comments to the media, foreign poll monitors who were in the country to observe the provincial council elections, especially the Northern elections expressed concern over the involvement of the military in election related activities. The Commonwealth and SAARC observers who monitored the Northern election have expressed concern over the heavy military presence and involvement in the elections.
The Commonwealth mission team led by former Vice President of Kenya Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka has noted the heavy presence and influence of the military, including persistent reports of overt military support for particular candidates, reported cases of the military actually campaigning for selected candidates, and military involvement in the intimidation of the electorate, party supporters and candidates.
The role of the military in the electoral campaign was consistently described to the mission as a significant obstacle to a credible electoral process, the observer team has stated.
The observers have also expressed concern over the apparently constricted media environment noting that in the run up to the elections and on Election Day, important online and electronic media sources were inaccessible.
Meanwhile, Head of the SAARC monitoring group, former Indian Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami has expressed dismay over the alleged role played by the army during the provincial council election in the North.
The group has also raised concerns over the alleged role of the army in the attack on the house of a candidate of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) a day ahead of the polls.
The monitors have said that the army was also involved in the election in other ways including by distributing handouts. The official statements made by these poll observers indicating an alleged militarization in the North will be included in their final reports on the Northern elections that will be made available to the international community as well.
Drawback for the UNP
However, the opposition political parties, namely the UNP and the JVP suffered major drawbacks at the provincial council elections.
The UNP’s vote base in the North Western Province, especially in the Kurunegala District has greatly eroded while a similar situation is witnessed in the other districts as well.
The UNP has said that the election results would be used to review the party policies and work towards strengthening the party.
UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake told journalists soon after the results of the elections were announced that the party had suffered a setback but the results also showed that the ruling party had also suffered quite a similar fate. Although Attanayake has given a valid explanation on the outcome of the elections, the deterioration of the UNP continues to be a reality.
The results of the polls indicated a sense of frustration of people faced with what seems like a Hobson’s choice. Statements about reviewing election results and working towards strengthening the party are now witnessed as ridiculous comments made by a party that has failed to show strength, commitment and reliability.
The issues faced by the UNP are far greater than a mere change of the party leadership or any other changes for that matter. In the event the party is looking at a change in its leadership, there are many other issues that need to be dealt with.
The UNP has for long been suffering due to the failure of the party leadership to appoint the correct person to hold proper offices.
Even those who are appointed are not vested with the proper powers. Some other members in the party through sheer greed for power and positions carry out negative campaigns against the party leadership little realizing the damage it causes to the party. The increase in the negative publicity received by the party or even senior officials results in the lack of confidence in the party by party members. In such a scenario, even the likes of Sajith Premadasa would not be able to resurrect the party.
The UNP Working Committee is to meet on October 7th and is expected to discuss several proposals that have been put forward at present. One proposal is for Ranil Wickremesinghe to remain as Opposition Leader while Karu Jayasuriya be handed over the party leadership and Sajith Premadasa the post of Deputy Leader.
Another proposal is to appoint Premadasa as the party leader and Ravi Karunanayake as the deputy leader.
The other opposition party to record a setback at the elections was the JVP. The party was unable to increase the number of seats held by it, but managed to retain its seat in the North Western Provincial Council and record the same number of votes as it had recorded in the 2009 elections.
JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva said that the recent election results were not a deterrent to the party’s operations. However, the key issue faced by the party is the emergence of the Democratic Party (DP) led by former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka as the third force at the provincial council elections. Fonseka’s party secured five seats at the North Western and Central Provincial Council elections.
The DP has mostly tapped into the UNP vote bank than that of the JVP. Nevertheless, the overall outcome has had an impact on the JVP. The JVP too is in need of some critical reforms. Some of the party hardliners who are adamant to follow its stances taken several decades back are now holding the party from progressing.
These hardliners as well as some party members who are allegedly being manipulated by persons with vested interests are seen as having a direct impact on the party’s re-organization and making political stances. The JVP’s decision making body is continuously engaged in a discussion on forming a united front to defeat the government and continuing to battle it out alone without making any impact. Be that as it may, the time has now come for the JVP to be pragmatic in its approach and work out a process where the party joins a broad political front while maintaining its individuality. After all, it is nothing new for the party that was instrumental in forming the governing UPFA with the SLFP. The Rajapaksa government is now looking at holding elections for three more provinces including the Western Province.
The Rajapaksa government, while preparing for more provincial council elections in the future would also have to meet the deadline given by Pillay on addressing issues related to human rights in the country. Pillay in her oral report to the UNHRC following her recent visit to Sri Lanka has given the Rajapaksa government a deadline to address human rights issues or face an international inquiry. She noted that there was no new or comprehensive effort being made to independently or credibly investigate the human rights allegations in Sri Lanka.
Pillay told the Council that Sri Lanka should use the time between now and March 2014 to engage in a credible national process with tangible results, in the absence of which she believes the international community will have a duty to establish its own inquiry mechanisms.
Pillay’s statement read out by her deputy Flavia Pansieri, stated that “she encourages the Government to use the time between now and March 2014 to engage in a credible national process with tangible results, including the successful prosecution of individual perpetrators, in the absence of which she believes the international community will have a duty to establish its own inquiry mechanisms.”
Pillay has said she was convinced that the continued attention of the UNHRC to the human rights situation in Sri Lanka remains critically important and will make recommendations in March on appropriate ways it could continue that engagement.
US backs Pillay
The US meanwhile supported Pillay’s statement to the UNHRC on Sri Lanka that the absence of meaningful progress on accountability calls for an international inquiry. The US also called on the government to implement the two resolutions adopted by the UNHRC on Sri Lanka. The US statement said, “We echo the High Commissioner’s concerns, in particular regarding restrictions on freedom of expression, attacks on human rights defenders and journalists, and interference with the judiciary.
We also share the High Commissioner’s concerns regarding increasing violence and discrimination against religious minorities, the climate of impunity for human rights and humanitarian law violations, and restrictions on peaceful assembly and association, including the shootings of unarmed protesters in Weliweriya.”
The US also encourages the government to accept offers of technical assistance by Pillay’s office.
India has also told the UNHRC that it encourages the UN Human Rights Commissioner to “continue to provide advice and technical assistance to Sri Lanka in accordance with the Council’s resolutions. The statement was made in reference to Pillay’s oral submission. “We take note that the High Commissioner had welcomed the government’s acceptance f 53 additional LLRC recommendations and ad highlighted the need for implementation of the remaining recommendations contained in the LLRC report for concrete improvement in Human Rights.
Accordingly, we encourage he High Commissioner to continue to provide advice and technical assistance to Sri Lanka in accordance with UNHRC resolutions,” the statement read.
Interestingly, India’s seven point statement was read at the UNHRC while the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment stating that land powers should be vested with the central government.
A three judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Mohan Peiris determined that land powers should be vested with the central government and not with the provincial councils. The judgement was delivered while reversing an Appeal Court determination. India has continuously been calling for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment, which includes the allocation of land and police powers to the provinces.
The latest Supreme Court judgement would therefore be a topic of interest to the Indians considering it was made soon after the conclusion of the Northern Provincial Council elections that was won by the TNA. The issue is likely to figure in discussions during Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid’s visit to Sri Lanka in October. It will be his first visit to Colombo.
Khurshid is to visit Sri Lanka on October 7 and 8 and is to meet President Mahinda Rajapaksa, External Affairs Minister of Sri Lanka Prof. G. L. Peiris and members of opposition political parties. The Indian External Affairs Minister is to meet with members of the TNA and Northern Province Chief Minister elect, C. V. Wigneswaran during his visit. However, it is learnt the Khurshid would not confirm to Colombo whether Indian Premier Manmohan Singh would attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
Focus on CHOGM
Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma and External Affairs Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris last week briefed the foreign ministers of the Commonwealth nations on the preparations for CHOGM. The meeting was held in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. As pointed out by British Minister Alastair Burt to Peiris, there’s a critical focus on Sri Lanka ahead of the CHOGM.
Meanwhile, members of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) were to also meet in New York on Friday (27). Details of the CMAG meeting were not available at the time of concluding this article. However, it is learnt that the CMAG is to discuss Sharma’s actions in relation to several issues pertaining to Sri Lanka. One is Sharma’s failure to present the two legal opinions on the impeachment of Chief Justice Dr Shirani Bandaranayake.
The other is a request reportedly made by Canada backed by several CMAG members to request High Commissioner Pillay to make a briefing at the meeting in New York. Pillay’s office has however said a request has not been made from the High Commissioner’s office for such a briefing.
It has been alleged that Sharma was instrumental in preventing Sri Lanka from being included in the CMAG agenda at its meeting in April this year.