The Director of the London School of Economics has stepped down over his association with the Libyan regime. Sri Lanka’s President, however, has no problem associating with repressive leaders from Libya, Iran, Burma, Russia and China. In the days of hypocritical realpolitik this may have made sense, but in a new era of real political change it is beginning to look less flattering. Mahinda Rajapaksa should now choose friends of the Sri Lankan people rather than the friends of the Sri Lankan state.
In his years as President, Mahinda Rajapaksa has cultivated friendships with numerous countries that oppress and abuse their own people and sow discord internationally.
In response to people power spreading throughout the Middle East, the People’s Republic of China has responded by abducting four prominent human rights lawyers, detaining hundreds of activists and charging more with serious crimes. They have obstructed and assaulted foreign journalists who tried to visit locations where Internet protests were planned. They have now banned journalists from certain malls entirely.
China has also backed dictators and repressive dictatorships ranging from North Korea — which starves and tortures its own people — to Burma, where a military dictatorship brutally crushed a peaceful uprising of Buddhist monks. This is a great friend of the Sri Lankan state, mainly because of their unquestioning supply of infrastructure loans.
Another friend Rajapaksa has cultivated is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by most accounts the fraudulently elected President of Iran. When millions of civilians took to the streets to protest the rigged election, they were met with violence, murder, arrests and torture. In response to the wave of uprisings in the Middle East, he has abducted the main opposition leaders and violently cracked down on pockets of protesters. At the same time he has the gall to go on television and ask how Muammar Gaddafi could use force to crack down on peaceful protests.
Internationally, Iran has funded terrorist actions of groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and called for the destruction of Israel and denied the Holocaust. This is another friend of the Sri Lankan state, mainly for its oil.
The Sri Lankan state had also cultivated ties with oppressive Burmese Generals, even as they beat, tortured and killed peaceful Buddhist monks. Mahinda Rajapaksa has also further strengthened ties with Russia, even as Russian opposition politicians, journalists and businessmen are jailed or worse.
The most notorious friend of Rajapaksa is Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. Mahinda Rajapaksa visited him in January this year. Unlike the other friends listed above, Gaddafi has now lost all his national trappings. He can no longer oppress his people from the shadows, he must actually shoot them in the streets and bomb them from the skies. The Libyan people have dropped the veil of complicit silence that made them partners in their own oppression and taken to the streets to fight and die for freedom. In the face of this bald oppression, Gaddafi has lost almost all international friends, but Mahinda Rajapaksa still will not utter a word of condemnation.
You can see a very different type of friendship based on who political leaders choose to visit or where they wish to live. When President Rajapaksa recently took a personal visit, he went to the United States. Prior to the war, his brothers lived and worked in America and their children still live there. When it came to military training, Mahinda Rajapaksa sent his son to the UK.
Sri Lankans go to more free countries for education and work, and political families are no exception. Indeed, even dictators’ families prefer Italy and London to the allies they support officially. These are the actual friends of the people.
Even these countries are now exposed as hypocritical because they had formed cruel alliances for the sake of money, oil or narrow political interests. America actually propped up the Egyptian dictatorship for years and many weapons used against protesters were manufactured in the US or in Britain. What makes them different is that they’ve come under internal criticism for it, people have stepped down, and these states are ashamed. Sri Lanka, however, is not.
This is partly because Sri Lanka is a small country and has less choice in its friends. At the same time, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government has made an active choice to reject the West, cozy up to unquestioning dictators and call this independence.
It seems, however, that a new trend is brewing in the world, one that Sri Lanka would be wise to follow. It is called honesty. Usually at the street level. Whatever ignorance they’ve spread related to the war, most average Sri Lankans have met a Westerner, used a Western product or consumed Western media. They probably can’t say the same of China, Libya or Iran. Those are state-to-state relationships and the Sri Lankan people are expected to be thankful for the infrastructure projects and dutifully pay back the loans, with corruption added on.
Whatever trouble the Tamil diaspora has caused, they are still friends and family of many Sri Lankan people and should probably be engaged with rather than completely written off. Thus, the Rajapaksa rhetoric of with us or against us is broadly revealed to mean with or against his family, not the Sri Lankan people as a whole. The people Mahinda Rajapaksa calls threats to Sri Lanka are actually friendly with the Sri Lankan people. The people he calls friends have little or no relationship with the people of this country.
In the recent past, two months ago actually, it could be said that the morality of a country’s friends didn’t matter. That was a time when states pursued their own narrow interests at the expense of long term stability and morality in general. In the global mind, however, that time of hypocrisy has passed. That veil has been pierced and all the hypocrisy that state leaders cover up with official visits and flowers and billboards has been exposed. Now it is no longer enough to have state-to-state friendships. The moral and social interests of the people need to be considered.
Sri Lanka has much more moral and social ties with the countries Rajapaksa currently demonizes than the demonic-dictators he currently calls friends. While the Sri Lankan ruler is currently not at risk of a people-power overthrow, he should be heedful that he still draws his power from the people. If he wants lasting power, he should choose friends that have founded their power on something more lasting than violence and thuggery. Like the people of North Africa, he too should choose ethics and democracy.