BY Tisaranee Gunasekara
Unfortunately our unenlightened people will never understand the Higher Reason that governs the actions of monarchs.” — Ryszard Kapuściński (The Emperor)
Minister, Professor G.L. Peiris has a dream. In his dream Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, the Queen of England, arrives in Hambantota, followed by 53 three heads of state, to attend the 2013 Commonwealth Summit.
With such a crop of political glitterati, Hambantota (renamed Sri Rajapaksapura?) literally glitters. The august guests disembark from the Rajapaksa International Airport and the Rajapaksa Port, confab at the Rajapaksa Convention Centre and stay at the Rajapaksa Shangri-La/Rajapaksa Plaza Hotel. They go sightseeing in Asia’s newest metropolis, incandescent from its facelift, courtesy Defence Ministry. (The underprivileged inhabitants had been evicted, en masse, to special villages and their former habitats beautified).
The Minister-Professor sheds happy tears when his President lavishes praise on his commitment and industry, thanks him for putting the pocket-borough of the Ruling Family on the world-map and holds him up as a peerless example to his 199 (envious) cabinet colleagues.
Alas, the Minister-Professor has but dreamed a dream. According to media reports Queen Elizabeth II has no plans to visit Hambantota.
Prof. Peiris made his queenly blunder while addressing the Tangalle Branch of the SLFP, attended by the First Son Namal Rajapaksa: “In 2013, the Queen of England, along with 53 Heads of State of Commonwealth countries will visit Hambantota to attend a summit called CHOGM…. CHOGM is a summit where all the leaders of Commonwealth countries meet for discussion and make important decisions about their future endeavours. The summit would directly affect your day-to-day lives. Infrastructure, hotels, roads would be essential to hold this summit” (Daily News – 12.1.2011).
The Minister’s overzealous imagining incensed the Commonwealth Secretariat which “reacted angrily to Peiris’ remarks. P.M. Amza, Sri Lanka’s Acting High Commissioner in Britain, was called for a meeting with the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Political Director, Amitav Banerji. He expressed ‘serious concern’ over Peiris’ remarks. Banerji told…the remarks were ‘highly unwarranted’ when no such matter has been entertained by Buckingham Palace.” (The Sunday Times – 23.1.2011).
Ever since he left the academia for politics, Prof. Peiris has displayed an unstinting willingness to please his bosses. If he is telling apocryphal tales about Royal visits, it is probably to please his current masters, because he knows that the Rajapaksas have an overwhelming desire to hobnob with Western leaders, notwithstanding the occasional anti-Western protest or diatribe. After all, President Rajapaksa’s eagerness to address the Oxford Society (the student union of the Oxford University) was so intense he even committed the diplomatic faux pas of leaving the country in the midst of a visit by his loyal friend, the President of Pakistan. And the Rajapaksa regime pays the British firm Bell Pottinger millions of dollars to gain entrée into Western capitals via political cosmetic surgery.
President Rajapaksa’s desire for Western acceptance and his chagrin over Western rejection have become a driving force and a deciding factor in Lanka’s external relations. This love-hate relationship is helpful in understanding the seemingly inexplicable swings (hypercritical of the West at one moment, overeager to obtain Western approbation the next) endemic to Rajapaksa foreign policy.
The Rajapaksas seek to woo the West with a strategy akin to its successful Indian policy – making substantial economic concessions to atone for the absence of any political concessions (in the form of credible investigations into human rights abuses or a political solution to the ethnic problem). After all, the West is hardly consistent or principled in its attitude towards democracy and counts some of the most obnoxious Third World tyrants among its friends, such as the former President of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who won five presidential elections (the last in 2009) and ruled for 23 years.
In Tunisia repression and corruption marched in unison because Ben Ali’s greed for power was matched by his family’s hunger for wealth. Nominally a multi-party democracy (nine parties contested the last parliamentary election), Tunisia was in reality a tyranny, with pre-decided elections, docile courts, a self-censoring media and a dormant society. Despite this anti-democratic reality, until his sudden ouster in a mass-uprising, President Ben Ali was a key Western ally. “The Tunisian was the first Arab leader to visit Washington after President Bush’s ‘forward strategy of freedom’ speech after the Iraq war…” (The Guardian – 22.10.2009).
The Western desire for Tunisia’s friendship created an unholy nexus between the Tunisian Ruling Family and Western leaders (both democrats and royals); for instance, when the Duke of York (a son of the British Queen) visited Tunisia to promote trade relations, he was helped by President Ben Ali’s infamously corrupt son-in-law.
So, if the West can tolerate a Ben Ali (and so many other Tricontinental despots), why not Mahinda Rajapaksa? Little wonder the Rajapaksas persist in sidling-up to the West; little wonder they get furious when their overtures are rejected.
While the rulers busy themselves with dreaming of royal visits or bidding for 2018 Commonwealth Games (for Hambantota), other problems, internal and external, fester. The terror-wave in Jaffna continues unabated. Both the Tamil Nadu government and Delhi are blaming the Lankan Navy for a slew of murderous attacks at sea on Indian fishermen (causing two deaths in two weeks, one by garrotting). The Navy denies any involvement and blames unnamed third parties. Two new developments have complicated matters further.
Last Monday, the Mahabodhi society in Chennai was attacked by a mob. Reports in the Indian media hint at a quid-pro-quo angle to this disturbing deed: “The attack on the Buddhist temple….has come close on the heels of the killing of two Indian fishermen allegedly by the Sri Lankan Navy. Lankan authorities however continue to deny the charge even as rage mounted in Tamil Nadu over the death of the fishermen…. The Buddhist prayer house was apparently targeted in an expression of anger” (The Times of India – 26.1.2011).
The second development is a plan by 500 Indian fishermen to ‘seek asylum with Colombo’ to highlight the inability/unwillingness of Indian authorities to take a tougher line with Sri Lanka! “In a week’s time all these fishermen in 100 odd fibre boats…would reach the Lankan maritime boundary to seek asylum with them. Though the ‘hard decision’ seems to be taken after the tragic death of local fisherman N Jayakumar at the hands of Lankan Navy, it was primarily meant to put pressure on the State and Centre to understand the ground reality faced by fishermen in the region….” (Express Buzz – 25.1.2011).
If the Navy is indeed innocent, and some mysterious third party is responsible for the murders, it is in our best interests to conduct a credible investigation and unearth the culprits, before Tamil Nadu pressure compels Delhi to ‘do something’ (AIADMK leader Ms. Jayalalitha is already in the fray). Because, notwithstanding the constraints imposed by China and Pakistan factors, India may be able to administer a couple of painful pinches to Sri Lanka.
The Rajapaksa state prefers wallowing in extravagant dreams to dealing with insalubrious realities. But imagining will not bring Elizabeth II to Hambantota nor denial make the fishermen’s issue disappear. And our protestations of eternal-innocence have worn thin, after humanitarian offensives and zero-casualty rates.