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Forgotten woes: Sri Lanka’s neoliberal politics

In light of Commonwealth support for the upcoming Heads of Government Meeting to be held in Colombo this November,  here we are reminded of the dangers of Sri Lanka becoming a model for other governments in the global South to follow.

Chaminda Weerawardhana
27 September 2013

Sri Lanka’s thirty-year war, which ended in May 2009, is fast being forgotten. In the post-2009 context, pressing fundamental rights issues in the island nation have been considerably sidelined. Key players in the international community do not perceive Sri Lanka as a strategic priority. In the most recent development, Colombo interprets its decision to hold a Northern Provincial Council Election on 21 September 2013, after a lapse of some twenty-five years, as a means of demonstrating its apparent respect for democratic best practice. The campaign, however, has been fraught with violence, especially against candidates of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main exponent of constitutional Tamil nationalism, polemical concerns over the TNA manifesto, and anti-TNA smear campaigns emanating from governmental sources.

Tamil activists and human rights advocates have long been campaigning for international action on the state of minority rights in Sri Lanka. The 2009 military victory, shrouded in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, only extended the Tamil community’s vulnerability. Although these issues received media coverage in Western states with substantial Tamil lobbies, including UK and Canada, very little concrete action has been taken, nationally or internationally, to address them. The UN HRC has passed resolution after resolution since 2009, the impact of which has been microscopic. The present-day emphasis of Western governments with relatively strong Tamil lobbies such as Norway is on enhancing cooperation between Tamil Diaspora groups and the government of Sri Lanka, as a means of facilitating development, especially in the war-ravaged Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka.

The bottom line is that Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa regime, despite its unambiguously repressive and fascist face, is considered as a vanquisher of terrorism, in both Western and non-Western neoliberal political circles. As far as India is concerned, Colombo overcame a threat to national sovereignty, vanquished a secessionist terrorist outfit, and hence sets a worthy precedent for the South Asian region. This especially applies to India, which also faces its fair share of secessionist outcries from the unresolved issue of Kashmir to the Maoists of central India. The International Community, or the US and UK governments, and the EU to be precise, tends to function on the basis of India’s Sri Lanka policy, as evidenced in the close collaboration between US and Indian diplomats in the UN HRC resolutions on Sri Lanka. As Tamil activists have repeatedly affirmed, the language of the resolutions has been toned down, rendering them a means of salvaging Colombo from its negative human rights record, through a number of reforms that can be described as insignificant at best.

It is in such a context that UN Human Rights chief Navanethem Pillay’s Sri Lanka tour took place from 25 to 31 August 2013. In the immediate aftermath of the 2009 war, Sri Lanka stood its ground at UN HRC with the support of member states from the global South. It benefitted from (to borrow from academics such as Sumit Ganguly and David Fidler) the rise of Eastphalia. As opposed to the Washington Consensus, R2P and Western-led liberal peacebuilding approaches, Eastphalia strongly adheres to national sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of states. In that sense, it also represents a ‘return’ to the basics of the original Westphalian system. The Beijing Consensus, as a leaked Chinese government document outlines, is also marked by an aversion to liberal democratic values, and sits on a par with autocratic regimes’ priorities. The fact that the alternative to a coercive and prescriptive Washington Consensus is fraught with a repressive dimension is seemingly overlooked by many a government of the global South.

There is a tendency to conceptualise Sri Lanka’s ongoing Human Rights concerns as a recent phenomenon stemming from the collapse of the island’s 2002-2003 peace process. This is an essentially inconsistent assessment of the question at hand, as Sri Lanka has been facing identical accusations since the 1980s, especially with the rise of anti-Tamil violence, Tamil militant activity and the resulting deterioration of national security. Bradman Weerakoon, one of Sri Lanka’s best-known civil servants who served as secretary to eight prime ministers, refers to the human rights dilemmas of the 1980s, in his memoires. Ironically, President Rajapaksa, when an opposition MP and in search of power in the early 1990s, himself happened to be an ardent advocate of human rights. Today, the parameters of the debate remain the same, while the actual human rights situation in Sri Lanka has indeed witnessed rapid deterioration.

So has Ms Pillay’s visit provided an impetus for Colombo to take concrete action on Human Rights issues? The challenge here lies in the neoliberal and neoconservative ideological mix at the helm of the island’s monocratic governance. The emphasis is, quite unambiguously, on profit. The defunct LTTE’s ex-chief of international operations works in close collaboration with Sri Lanka’s ruling family. His years of experience and contacts facilitate power-wielders in Colombo to tap into some of the LTTE’s most lucrative underhand business operations, which include arms deals. The Rajapaksa regime has neither accepted nor denied these allegations. The emphasis on harnessing relations with selected authoritarian and autocratic regimes across the world is also highly suggestive of the Rajapaksa administration’s international outlook and foreign policy approaches. On the very day Ms Pillay arrived in Colombo, President Rajapaksa flew out on an official visit to Belarus. In a similar vein, steps have been taken to reinforce ties with a number of African regimes notorious for authoritative and tyrannical excesses.

Colombo is in a position to channel the course of its international agenda in this manner for two reasons. Firstly, its military victory against an organisation classified in the USA, UK, EU and India as a terrorist outfit has provided it with an increased flexibility in making its domestic and foreign policy decisions. Secondly, the relative international disinterest in the Sri Lankan question and the inclination to view Sri Lanka’s ethnic question as a ‘past’ issue prevent Colombo from facing any international barriers in its course of action. As long as Sri Lanka’s policies do not hinder the Delhi-Washington DC consensus, the Rajapaksa regime is unlikely to earn the international community’s wrath.

True, many Western donor agencies have curtailed or categorically withdrawn their funding programmes for Sri Lanka. Such developments may have affected non-governmental lobbies, but have been relatively ineffective in charting government policy or having a positive effect on the Human Rights situation. Besides, Colombo has been a beneficiary of generous financial support from Peking, its Eastphalian benefactor. Whereas Western governments have halted training programmes for Sri Lankan military personnel, Colombo has sought new defence partnerships with Peking and governments in the global South, including Sudan.

In sum, Sri Lanka is a case in point of the manner in which a small state in South Asia manoeuvres its foreign affairs to its relative advantage at the hour of Eastphalia. Colombo’s trick is in balancing its Eastphalian interactions with an effort to be in the good books of the neoliberal streak in contemporary world politics. This is only confirmed by the Commonwealth Secretary General’s support for holding the November 2013 CHOGM in Colombo, despite waves of protest from across the world. The ruling family of a small South Asian state could not envisage a strategically safer means of enhancing its domestic power base and international interactions. 

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