The Sri Lankan government is apparently abandoning the garment sector if press reports over the weekend are to be believed. Given that the EU has withdrawn its GSP+ concession and the US is investigating its version of GSP, this is perhaps just the government accepting that garments are going to be hard to sell if the country's human rights record is not improved.
But given that garments remain Sri Lanka's top export earner President Rajapaksa’s address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York was a telling glimpse at his take on the current situation in Sri Lanka. His is a vision that bears little resemblance to the reality. Yet, whilst UN delegates walked out in protest against the Iranian president’s controversial remarks, describing them as 'delusional', acknowledgment that the Sri Lankan president’s remarks are equally so was not as forthcoming.
Sri Lanka has for too long hidden its true colours. Despite decades of state sponsored pogroms and ethnic discrimination, it is only relatively recently that the hard-line Sinhala nationalism that rules the country is being noticed; its rhetoric of regular elections, foreign trade and recovering from terrorism cannot overcome the realities of institutional discrimination and the allegations of deliberate targeting of civilians.
“The entire focus of our nation is now on building a last peace, healing wounds, ensuring prosperity and guaranteeing the rights of the whole nation to live in harmony” President Rajapakse proclaimed to the world. Yet, since the end of the conflict last year, the citizens of Sri Lanka and the international community have not seen any evidence of this – in fact they have seen the opposite.
President Rajapaksa has created a dictatorial police state, governed by those he wishes to appoint – primarily his family. The recent passing of the 18th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution is the jewel in his crown. The violation of human rights, which was the norm amongst the Tamil population, is now being seen enacted against the Sinhala masses. The police and military are free to arbitrarily arrest, indefinitely detain with out charge and kill without impunity.
Well over a year after the war, 10,000 Tamil young men and women are detained with no charge against them and no access to international NGOs or indeed their families. Speaking out against the state is a crime one pays for with their life. Rajapaksa stated that he wanted the results of his decisions to be ‘evaluated objectively’, yet the media is constantly harassed, and he has on numerous occasions barred publication of international criticism including prohibiting the distribution of the Economist; as well as most recently barring the BBC from the LLRC.
Rajapaksa talks of healing but his actions have done nothing but rub salt into the wounds of the Tamil population. The Sri Lankan state’s ostentatious victory parade was held as 300,000 Tamils remained imprisoned in camps that lacked basic necessities. As the state has built houses for its military, tens of thousands of IDPs remain destitute and dependent of foreign NGOs, which are finding it increasingly hard to operate within the stifling state regulations. Destroying the graves of Tamil men and women, replacing Tamil place-names with Sinhala ones and erecting Buddhist temples over the rubble of Tamil places of worship is not the work of someone who respects the rights and identity of a nation.
Rajapaksa’s greatest delusion is the belief that he is building a lasting peace. An independent investigation into alleged war crimes during the recent past, followed by fair justice to those who perpetrated the crimes, forms the foundation of any future peace. Yet till now he has done everything within his power to ensure this does not occur.
That said, in a shameless act of duplicity, it appears he has changed his tune. Having called the UN war crimes panel as an infringement on Sri Lankan sovereignty, prevented the issuing of visas for UN panel members and supporting the seize of the UN office, he told the UN general assembly that he believes that the countries must ‘work together’ to ‘constructively counsel each other’ and the UN forms the ‘bedrock of this interaction’. He is opening is arms to the international community, after punching them in the face. Perhaps the UN should seize the moment.