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Government’s invitation to UN Panel may reflect a lesson learnt

by Jehan Perera

" Any government anywhere will face the problem of competing priorities.There is the choice that the government has to make between how much it will spend on its military as against on development and social welfare."
(December 21, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The government has announced it is purchasing sophisticated new armoured vehicles from Russia to bolster the strength of the country’s security forces.A justification given is that this will permit the Sri Lankan military to obtain assignments on peacekeeping mission abroad.Government spokespersons have referred to the high expenditures on defence as being in the nature of investments in the country’s long term security and stability, which are key to economic development.The budget allocation for defence this year was an increase over last year, which in turn made it the second year in succession that Sri Lanka’s defence budget increased after the end of the war.

Apart from the most recent justification of spending on weapons as being an investment in security, the government has responded to its critics with two other justifications.One is that the defence budget has to remain high in order to pay for the weaponry that was purchased on credit during the war.The other is that the army in peace time requires reasonable accommodation when they are out in the field, and cannot be left to live under trees and inside earth bunkers.This requires the building of new army cantonments and bases.Whatever the justifications, the expenditures on defence are taking place in a context in which economic hardship is rife amongst the bulk of the population, for whom the New Year season has brought little cheer.

There are two contrasting views about ensuring social stability in a post-war situation.One is by making effort to engage with all parties to satisfy the needs of all sections of the population so that no group in society feels it needs to use violence to achieve its purpose.The other method is by having a strong state which dictates the path that has to be followed to take the country in the direction that it deems to be development, and to be ready to suppress opposition even by repressive means.However, the experience in both Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the world of political struggle makes it evident that when the path of suppression is taken there is no natural end, only constant escalation.

Reversing Decision

Any government anywhere will face the problem of competing priorities.There is the choice that the government has to make between how much it will spend on its military as against on development and social welfare.The decision taken by the government is to make defence the biggest item on the national budget and now, to purchase armoured vehicles from Russia.This suggests that the government is giving it priority to strengthening of the state and its ability to engage in repression.The hope that the government would devote its peace time budget to improving social welfare has not materialized.In its place the government’s fear and apprehension of the future has emerged.The consequences have been most harmful to the war affected people of the north and east, and also to the general population who find the government spending on weapons what it might have spent on them.

The government’s strategy to counteract the disappointment of the masses of the population in regard to their economic situation is to focus on non-economic issues and to divert the attention of people to those issues.The electoral strength of the government is the commitment it shows to ethnic majority nationalism.The power of nationalism cannot be matched by economic or social welfare considerations so long as nationalism is kept alive.The problem is to keep the spirit of nationalism alive when the people are finding it difficult to make ends meet in their daily economic lives.But it appears that at least section of the government has a multi pronged approach to keeping the spirit of nationalism alive in the masses of people. The sudden emergence of the issue of singing the national anthem only in the Sinhala language can perhaps be best explained in terms of a strategy to keep on strengthening the electoral base through nationalism.

However, the willingness of the government to reconsider its positions under pressure is also commendable and constructive.The government’s decision to permit entry to Sri Lanka to the Panel of Experts appointed by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to advise him on human rights issues pertaining to the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war is evidence of this pragmatic approachThe government’s initial reaction to the appointment of the panel was to reject it as unnecessary. It was seen as an effort by a section of the international community to build up its case that the Sri Lankan government bore responsibility for war crimes committed in the course of the last phase of the war.

Learning Lesson

It is likely that the government considered its experience with the European Union on the issue of extending the GSP+ tariff concession in making its decision to permit the UN Panel to visit Sri Lanka.The EU which had been critical of the government’s conduct during the last phase of the war thereafter sought to send an investigating team to Sri Lanka to ascertain the country’s compliance with several human rights agreements which were part of the GSP+ package.When the government refused to permit that investigation to take place, the relationship between the two sides deteriorated. Although the government sent its leading negotiators and even religious prelates to Europe to lobby with the EU to call off its investigation, it was to no avail.

The final result of the government’s unwillingness to compromise with the EU was that the EU withdrew its GSP+ concession with harmful effects to the country’s apparel exports, the apparel industry and to foreign direct investments in general.Likewise, the government may have been concerned that if it had refused to permit the UN Panel on human rights entry into Sri Lanka, a similar negative dynamic could have emerged. A government refusal to permit the UN Panel access to Sri Lanka would have meant that the final report submitted by the UN Panel would have been minus the views of the Sri Lankan government, and persons and organizations within Sri Lanka.

As those within Sri Lanka have a different view of what transpired during the last days of the war as compared to those outside of the country, the UN Panel will now have access to a more comprehensive view of what transpired during those terrible days and the possible justifications for them. The willingness of the government to engage with the UN Panel and vice versa is a positive sign.Those who engage with one another usually do so because they wish to sort out difficulties in a mutually acceptable manner. The issues of the national anthem and expenditures on defence need to be discussed in a like manner with the relevant parties in Sri Lanka itself.The practice of a more consensual type of politics in which the hurt and injury to different parties is minimized holds the key to Sri Lanka’s future and to being the Wonder of Asia that the President wants it to be. Tell a Friend

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