Colombo Question

Island Editorial (Ceylon Today Editorial)

The seemingly waning popularity of the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe Unity Government is underscored by the indicators thrown up by the political barometer such as the rising cost of living (CoL), a proposal to hike MPs monthly emoluments by Rs 100,000; apparently in order to ensure that Budget 2017 currently being debated in Parliament is passed and alleged political partiality of the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID), seemingly sealed by a suspicious telephone call received by IGP Pujith Jayasundara.

It’s in this backdrop that local government elections which were due this year is in limbo, having had been postponed by a presidential directive allegedly due to the fact that the Unity Government is afraid to face the masses at the poll.

It’s also in this vortex, that the Unity Government, in under three months time from now, will have to face a vote, not at a local election, but before a world body, namely the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC)’s 34thSession due to be held from 27 February to 24 March 2017 at Geneva, as to what progress it has made to prosecute alleged human rights violators, especially during the closing stage of its war against the LTTE which was prosecuted to a successful finish 7½ ago in 2009?

Colombo, together with the USA, a little over a year ago, gave a commitment to the UNHRC to investigate such charges, even with the assistance of foreign judiciary. The pressing for the investigation of such charges is led by the West, with the USA at the driving seat.

A popular saying in the 1980s was that when the USA coughs, Europe catches a cold, while the rest of the world gets pneumonia. Little has changed even after 30 years, despite the rise of China as a new economic and military powerhouse; it’s still the USA which calls the shots at the world stage.

President Sirisena, quick to realize the negative changes in the local political climate, though not even only two years in office, mainly driven by the rising CoL, has realized that the ‘Colombo Question’, once more to be raised before this world body in another three months time, will make it even more unpopular among the island’s 70% Sinhala-Buddhist majority, who consider the UNHRC move as a step towards prosecuting those whom they consider to be heroes, responsible for successfully checkmating Tamil/ LTTE terrorism that killed and maimed thousands and destroyed public property worth billions of rupees, if action against Colombo is voted for, at Geneva.

The Unity Government may have got a mandate from the people in August 2015 to govern for another five years, but so did Sirisena’s former leader Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike get, and an overwhelming mandate as that, from the masses of this country on 27 May 1970, to govern the people of this country for five years.

But that didn’t prevent a section of the Sinhala populace, led by the Marxist JVP to launch a Sinhala terrorist warfare, hardly a year later in April 1971, similar to Tamil terrorism that enveloped the country, leading to the events that led to the July 1983 riots and to become fully blown afterwards, because their economic needs, led by unemployment and a stagnant economy, remained unfulfilled and provincial disparities remained.

If, ‘April 1971’ was caused by youth unemployment and a stagnant economy, 46 years later, a possible condemnation of Sri Lanka by the world body for not taking steps to prosecute alleged war criminals at the February/March Geneva sessions and possible punitive actions threatened on Colombo thereafter, may well give rise to laying the seeds for an ‘April 2017’ on the island.

Nonetheless, what may be pleasing to Colombo’s ears is US Ambassador Atul Keshap’s recent statement that Sri Lanka-US relations are at an all time high, especially after 8 January 2015, the year Sirisena was elected to power. 

It may be in that context one may have to look at Sirisena’s phone call with US Vice President-elect Mike Pence, as reported on these pages yesterday and an invitation extended to visit the USA.

Sirisena, if he wishes to defuse Geneva, should seize this opportunity. It was only recently that he had written to President- elect Donald Trump to rescind alleged war crimes investigations on Colombo.

Trump is scheduled to take office on 20 January. It may be good if Sirisena, for a start, presents himself at the inauguration, i.e., if it’s possible for him to get an invitation for such.