by Karu Jayasuriya
Statement by Deputy Leader of the United National Party
The events that transpired during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to Britain have filled the people of this country with dismay and caused significant embarrassment to the Sri Lankan state and its citizenry. The President was beleaguered from the moment of his arrival in Britain, with protesters flocking to the airport and causing disruptions to every aspect of his programme, culminating in the unilateral cancellation of his scheduled speech to the prestigious Oxford Union, which was the primary purpose of his visit.
The treatment of the Sri Lankan President deeply wounds the psyche and the morale of the people of this country, who are struggling still to break out of economic shackles, despite the conclusion of the war and the tremendous economic saving the conflict’s end has created for the country. A slight to the Head of State of this country is a slight to the Sri Lankan state and it is disgraceful that it is the cavalier conduct of this regime has led to this tragic and humiliating state of affairs during the President’s visit overseas.
Since the conclusion of the war against the LTTE, Sri Lanka has been dogged by allegations of massive civilian casualties, and the blatant disregard of human rights which has led to the muzzling of the free press, abduction and assassination of journalists and the stifling of political dissent. The government, playing constantly to the sensibilities of its hawkish support base has consistently denied the allegations, refused to investigate even the more serious incidents of violence and extra-judicial killings and adopted an obtuse approach to global criticism by constantly making wild claims about international conspiracies. The events in Britain this week is merely a case of this regime’s immature and delusional approach to foreign policy coming to a head.
This regime has continuously claimed that it “looks East” as a keystone of its foreign policy and many of its vociferous proponents have continuously lambasted Western nations and the UN. While there is nothing wrong with strengthening our ties with Asian nations, the reasons for the government to do are troubling. It is somewhat correctly assumed that Asian nations vying for influence in Sri Lanka do not care about the current regime’s appalling human rights record or the trampling of freedoms while the West expects a higher standard of governance.
While some may argue that there is a Western conspiracy to tarnish the image of Sri Lanka it would better serve us to realise that the image is but a reflection of reality. If the Sri Lankan government has intentionally targeted our own fellow civilians during the later part of the conflict, if its agents have killed and hounded journalists, stifled free speech and made a mockery of this country’s proud democratic traditions paving the way for a dynastic autocracy then we, more than any other should be concerned regarding our plight. It will serve us well to introspectively reflect on what our own government has done or in many cases not done to attract such sanctions in the international arena.
Rightly or wrongly the world expects nations and their governments to conduct themselves according to certain universal standards. Democracy, freedom of expression and adherence to fundamental human rights of citizens, whether they are eastern or western concepts are principles that will better serve a nation. It is important that the Sri Lankan people realise that autocratic politicians from countries such as Myanmar and Zimbabwe have consistently sought to label these values as Western interventions in order to deny their people these basic rights.
It is indeed unfortunate that the Oxford Union did not allow the president of Sri Lanka his right to free speech. In fact his Secretary, Lalith Weeratunge had called the Oxford Union as an institution with a rich history of upholding freedom of expression. It is however ironic that this is the very freedom that has been mostly affected by the present regime back home in Sri Lanka. It might be a point to ponder for the President whether he and his administration has held the right to free expression in the same esteem that he expects the Oxford Union to. Killings, abductions and assaults of journalists have gone unabated in Sri Lanka under Presidents present administration . Media institutions have been bombed, intimidated and bought into submission. The voice of dissent has been silenced and democratic space has been shrunk to near non existence. While the president had all the right to be heard it is only hoped that he allows every other voice that his regime has silenced be given this basic right.
As long as the government maintains that its record in warfare has been spotless and pure, flatly dismisses serious allegations without credible investigation and opts to denigrate and insult our fellow members in the global community every time they expect us to hold ourselves to a higher standard of civility and conduct, Sri Lankans will be seen world over as barbaric killers and heinous liars. This negativity towards Sri Lanka will have devastating consequences for trade, tourism and foreign investments, creating further economic burdens for the people of this country.
I appeal to the government to stop treating governance as a joke and something so trivial as to conduct government business in a way that only appeals to the local electorate. Governance cannot only be about winning elections. In these last two years, Sri Lanka’s standing in the modern world has been eroded in an unprecedented way and the government has no one but itself to blame. While it is all very well to harp on Sri Lanka’s rights in the world, it would do this regime well to contemplate also upon its obligations, both to its citizens and as a responsible member of the world community.
Instead this regime has chosen once more to lay blame on the opposition, manhandle opposition members of parliament and generally pass the buck for all the winds that are blowing against Sri Lanka in the world. Once more it has chosen to play to local sensibilities, reinforcing the notion that all the business of this government is one big sell, to ensure votes at the next election. Where it could have sought the support of the opposition to help our country to face these international allegations, the regime has chosen to divide and fracture us, throw the man responsible for the military victory against the LTTE behind bars and accuse opposition members of treason.
The time has come for introspection. It is clear that the world is growing impatient with Sri Lanka’s attitude. If nothing else the President’s visit to Britain should be an eye opener for this regime that the only way to restore Sri Lanka’s good name in the world is to investigate these many allegations against us and take genuine steps to address the just claims of the Minority. This is the only way to diminish the credibility of these protesting groups and the only way to counter worldwide sympathy with their cause. Let us put our house in order before the impunity and hubris of today becomes our collective tragedy and shame tomorrow.