By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“…tyrants are active and ardent, and will devote themselves in the name of any number of gods, religious and otherwise, to put shackles upon sleeping men.” — Voltaire (Philosophical Dictionary)
There is hysteria in the air. The regime and its allies are flailing at the UN and the EU, to the tune of wild drumbeats of national sovereignty and shrill accusations of unwarranted and unjust interference. That a cabinet minister exhorted the masses to take the UN staff in Colombo hostage until the UN advisory panel is disbanded is a measure of the dominant madness. Amidst this verbal melee, the IMF announced its decision to release the third tranche of its Lankan loan, a reward for the post-election willingness of the Rajapaksas to implement the attached conditionalities. If national sovereignty is not violated by IMF conditionalities, why is national sovereignty violated by EU conditionalities?
The IMF conditionalities have a disastrous impact on the living conditions of the people but they have no impact on the Rajapaksa Dynastic Project. The EU conditionalities do not have a disastrous impact on the living conditions of the people but they would impact on the Rajapaksa Dynastic Project. That is why the regime forgets national sovereignty with the IMF and remembers national sovereignty with the EU. That is why the regime embraced the IMF conditionalities as its own, while rejecting the EU conditionalities as alien interference.
The government’s assertion that the IMF loan came without conditionalities is an infantile propaganda gimmick, like its ‘zero-casualty’ myth. The IMF website has a separate page defining and explaining MF conditionalities. The conditionalities for the Lankan loan include reducing the budget deficit, overhauling the tax system and ensuring that the Electricity Board and the Petroleum Corporation become ‘breakeven’, as the Letter of Intent and the Memoranda indicate. And as proof of its capacity to abide by these conditionalities, the government cites past tough measures, such as increasing the ‘Nation Building Tax’, oil prices and electricity rates.
The third tranche of the IMF loan was suspended in February because of the Rajapaksas’ election oriented spending orgy. But once the election season ended, the government could and did revert to the obedience mode. As the IMF statement of May 21 put it, the government pledged to “correct the slippages and move toward sustainable deficit reduction”. Indirect taxes were increased and subsidy cuts effected pushing up the prices of many essential commodities. The IMF was appeased and the third tranche was released, even as the regime was putting Sri Lanka on a collision course with the UN and the EU in the name of national sovereignty.
Government of, by and for the Rajapaksas
The different responses to IMF and EU conditionalities are proof positive that what is really at stake is not national sovereignty but Rajapaksa sovereignty. The IMF operates within the Washington Consensus and has no concerns about democracy or human rights. The IMF demands deficit reduction, but does not object if developmental expenditure is reduced while defence expenditure remains intact. The IMF demands deflationary measures, but cares not if they further depress the purchasing power of the poor and the middle classes.
The IMF therefore has no issues with the Rajapaksa policy of maintaining defence expenditure at astronomical levels at the expense of social and developmental expenditure; nor does it object to obese cabinets, tax breaks for luxury vehicles or wasteful extravaganzas such as the IIFA, so long as there are tax hikes on essential commodities, subsidy cuts and wage freezes in lieu. The choice of guns over butter and of the super rich and the super powerful over the rest would have serious consequences for the development prospects of a country and living conditions of its people; but this is not the IMF’s concern.
Little wonder that the Rajapaksas embraced IMF conditionalities, the way innumerable anti-democratic regimes did in the past. After all, the IMF never interferes with a regime’s sovereign right to violate the democratic and human rights of its people; on the contrary, the IMF knows that the successful implementation of some of its conditionalities may require such aberrations.
The EU conditionalities are of a different order. Promoting good governance and sustainable development are the declared purpose of the GSP+ criteria. The GSP+ is therefore a politically motivated programme. Just as the IMF demands a structural adjustment regimen to qualify for its loans, the EU demands adherence to 27 international covenants dealing with human rights, workers rights and environmental protection. And unlike IMF conditionalities, many of the EU requirements interfere with the Rajapaksa project of concentrating all power in the hands of the President, and through him, the Ruling Family. That is why the regime, though remarkably flexible towards IMF demands, have rejected in toto, the EU demands.
National sovereignty does not give a government the right to act with impunity, in total violation of a country’s democratic system, its constitution, its national law and its international obligations. Many of the EU conditionalities are aimed at compelling the government to act democratically, constitutionally and lawfully. What most EU conditionalities erode is not the ‘authority of the government of Sri Lanka’ as the External Affairs Ministry claims but the Rajapaksas’ right to impunity.
This is why the Rajapaksas are reacting with ferocious negativity towards such unexceptionable demands as the full implementation of the 17th Amendment and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the repeal of the Emergency and some provisions of the PTA, the publication of the full report of the 2008 Commission of Inquiry and the ensuring of journalistic freedom. The GSP+ issue is therefore not a heroic battle by a beleaguered government to safeguard the national sovereignty but an attempt by a megalomaniac family to safeguard its right to absolute rule without checks and balances.
The President told The Times of India that the loss of the GSP facility is ‘not a problem’ because Sri Lanka can find alternate markets. Sri Lanka became a major garment exporter thanks to the Multi-fibre Agreement which gave us access to European and US markets via a quota system. The MFA ended in 2004; but due to the GSP+ facility our access to the EU markets expanded and the garment sector regained its vitality. If we lose the GSP+ our garments will be taxed (currently we enjoy zero taxation) and the resultant higher prices will cause us to lose most of our EU markets.
Given the intensity of the global economic crisis, our chances of finding alternate markets are miniscule; China or India cannot fill the vacuum because both are garment exporters and thus competitors. Consequently, many garment factories may have to curtail their operations or close down altogether. Losing GSP facility will have a catastrophic impact not on the Rajapaksas, but on the families of garment factory workers and on small scale entrepreneurs who have indebted themselves to start micro export enterprises aimed at European markets.
Unemployment and poverty will increase while many a woman may be compelled to seek employment abroad — not a happy fate given that a Lankan migrant worker dies or is killed everyday, and more than 60% of the victims are women.
Sri Lanka is rapidly becoming a government by the Rajapaksas, of the Rajapaksas and for the Rajapaksas. The nature of the constitutional reforms clearly indicates that their main purpose is neither national security nor popular wellbeing, but the perpetuation of Rajapaksa rule. According to media reports, Basil Rajapaksa is negotiating to purchase the former British High Commission building for his Ministry of Economic Development. The next G15 summit will be held in Colombo because Latin Americans do not want to spend billions on hosting an event of dubious political import and Rajapaksas have no such compunctions.
First Son, Namal Rajapaksa’s Tharunyata Hetak began a project to construct a swimming pool in Jaffna Central College, with much fanfare. This project is now abandoned and instead of the promised swimming pool, the students have been left with a mosquito breeding hole of enormous proportions. This failure may well be a forewarning of what is in store for the country and the people, if the Rajapaksa Dynastic Project is a success.
A Land Polarised
Post-war Sri Lanka is a virulently polarised land with no space for the moderate centre. Though the war is over, war mentality dominates Lankan rulers and the search for enemies continues apace. The Navy is to be expanded, though the Sea Tigers are no more. According to the Army Commander, not only will the army be
entrenched in the North and the East permanently; “Army personnel arriving in those areas for duty are to be provided permanent houses and allowed to engage in cultivation work” (Daily Mirror – 28.6.2010). This time the North and the East will be colonised not by Sinhala civilians but by Sinhala soldiers. The President boasts that the world need not be concerned with the Tamils because they are our concern and yet, according to media reports, the displaced are given food and financial assistance by the WFP, housing and agricultural assistance by India and other necessities by INGOs such as Caritas. Defence costs is swallowing the peace dividend and the Rajapaksa vision of post-war Sri Lanka, as a theatre of permanent political conflict with omnipresent ‘enemies’, intent on violating our national sovereignty and territorial integrity, will cost the country dear.
Insensitivity and intolerance are hallmarks of the Rajapaksa regime. No Sri Lankan government would have dreamt of celebrating the day the JVP’s brutal insurgency collapsed as a day of ‘national victory’ or of instituting a practice of holding an annual victory parade to mark the occasion. And yet, the first anniversary of the defeat of the LTTE was celebrated with greater fanfare than the day of independence. The triumphalist tone and tenor of the official victory celebration made no allowance for the collective human and material losses of the Tamil people, their present uncertain existence and their fears for the future. Meanwhile the UDA, reborn as an arm of the Defence Ministry, has graduated from hounding pavement hawkers and shanty dwellers to demolishing churches; a 25 year old church in Rajagiriya was branded an unauthorised structure and destroyed on Poson Poya Day.
As President Rajapaksa’s Victory Day speech indicated there is no room in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka for any who do not subscribe to the Rajapaksa worldview (or at least makes a pretence of it). And so long as the ‘any challenge to Rajapaksa rule cannot but be a threat to national security’ fallacy remains dominant, the Rajapaksas will be able to persecute and prosecute any opponent of the family as an enemy of the nation. In this context, a demand by Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (which in general functions as a mouth-piece of the Rajapaksas) for a constitutional amendment decreeing that any person charged with the crime of separatism be tried by the Supreme Court within a period of 90 days, with the onus of proof on the accused assumes an ominous import.
The proposal seems incredulously preposterous, but we need to remember that under Rajapaksa rule, measures and developments hitherto considered incredulously preposterous, do tend to become transformed into banal realities. One year ago, constitutional amendments removing presidential term limits and enabling the president to appoint members to the independent commissions would have seemed incredulously preposterous. And yet today they are fait accompli, politico-psychologically and will become so legally and constitutionally before the year is out. We are living in a transformative period and during such times, no development, no measure, however abhorrent or aberrant, can be predetermined as impossible.