Parliament can’t resolve present crisis - Tamara Kunanayakam | Sunday Observer

Parliament can’t resolve present crisis - Tamara Kunanayakam

Former Permanent Representative and Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in Geneva, Tamara Kunanayakam speaks to the Sunday Observer on democracy, the current political situation in Sri Lanka and how it will effect the lives of the citizenry.

Q. Some say democracy is in danger and must be defended. This is also the position of Western Embassies in Colombo. What do you think?

A. Democracy as used by the West and parroted by their local backers is an empty phrase without substance. For them, it provides a pretext for interfering in the internal affairs of countries of strategic importance to them. Today, it is the buzzword of neoliberals whose interest it is to advance the global ambitions of a handful of Western oligarchs. For the pro-Western trans-nationalised elite within Sri Lanka, it ensures they receive their share of the wealth. For western-funded human rights NGOs in Colombo, it is a way of life, maintaining high standards of living and free trips abroad.

They all have an interest in keeping the people divided artificially, according to ethnicity, religion, language, colour and sexual orientation, masking the essential contradictions between the rich and the poor, the exploiters and the exploited.

The word democracy comes from the Greek demos, which means citizens within a city-state, and kratos meaning power or rule. Democracy then means people’s power or people’s rule. Ordinary people are not concerned about ‘democracy’ in the abstract. Democracy for them is about achieving a life with dignity, free from exploitation, oppression, debt, and ignorance; improving their well-being and that of their children and community and having the means to achieving those goals.

But that is not what the UNP, its political allies, including the JVP, the Colombo-based Western funded NGOs, Western diplomats and the UN Resident Coordinator Hanaa Singer, are concerned about. You may know that Singer was involved in a controversy as Unicef representative in Syria. She had reportedly called on the Syrian government in March 2015 to negotiate with ISIS, one of the world’s most violent terrorist groups, and Unicefhad been forced to publicly clarify that her remarks had been misconstrued.

Q. So is ‘democracy’ in danger?

A. Yes, in the sense I’ve described above.

However, the threat to democracy began not on October 26, but in 1978, when the J.R. Jayewardene regime opened up the economy, allowing Western global corporates to determine the country’s socio-economic policies according to their own needs, not those of the large majority of Sri Lankans whose livelihood depended on the national economy. Subsequent governments, even of the centre-left, pursued the agenda, although less aggressively. They failed to provide an alternative, their politics being driven by circumstance rather than strategic vision.

It was under the Sirisena-Wickremesinge regime that anti-people, anti-democratic policies received new impetus with the neoliberal Good Governance program known as Yahapalanaya – of course, all in the name of democracy. Even the World Bank, which coined the word and imposed it on indebted countries, admitted that it “may be unpopular among … even a majority of the population” (World Bank report, 2002).

Neoliberalism is essentially a political project to prevent the emergence of countervailing forces and permit transnational capital override democratic processes, determine national economic and social priorities and secure control over the value of what is produced by the nation, its wealth, natural resources, economic activities, workforce, and currency. On the part of local allies, it implies abdication of State power and the duty to act on behalf of nation and people.

Today, Yahapalanaya has become synonymous with the biggest-ever Central Bank robbery of public money and cover-up in Sri Lanka’s history. In today’s struggle, people are hardly visible; they are the silent majority. What people expect today is real change that impacts positively on their lives, not rhetoric.

Had Ranil Wickremesinghe been a genuine democrat, he would have called upon the people to decide in a general election; instead, he and his political allies turned to the West for a solution.

Q. How would you describe the present crisis?

A. It is not one single event that provoked what the UNP and the West describe as a ‘political crisis’. It is the result of a series of decisions and actions of the Yahapalana regime taken over the past 3 ½ years. The President’s decisions are manifestations of a much larger systemic crisis encompassing the economic, financial, social, institutional, cultural, ecological, energetic, food and the political. The people had massively rejected the anti-popular, anti-national, pro-Western neoliberal policies of a regime that is not in touch with their reality.

The total losses incurred by the bond scams remain to be calculated, but the losses are counted in billions of rupees to the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) and other state institutions. EPF, Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation (SLIC) and National Savings Bank (NSB) are said to have lost over Rs 31 billion, the loss to EPF is estimated at over Rs 26 billion (The Island, February 5, 2018).

Economists also say it has contributed to a three percent increase in interest rates, adding millions to the public debt and debt burden. According to Former Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal, by end July 2018, Sri Lanka’s public debt had increased by 59 percent in three and half years and total foreign debt by 33 percent since end 2014 (DailyFT, 10.09.2018).

In 2017, GDP growth dropped to 3.19%, the lowest in 16 years. The Balance of Payments is in huge deficit. The trade deficit has expanded significantly and continues to grow according to an August 2018 Central Bank communiqué. In June 2018, the current account deficit was US$ 1.1 billion. The foreign debt burden has risen sharply, eroding the value of Sri Lanka’s public assets – labour, public enterprises, utilities, land and its resources and rivers, making it easier for a Western oligarchy to purchase them cheaply.

Such a profound systemic crisis cannot be resolved by Parliament, certainly not by one that has violated its own rules since the 2015 General Elections.

Q. What does this mean for the lives of ordinary Sri Lankans?

A. Workers, farmers, fisherman, public servants, the liberal professions and local businesses have been badly affected by a crippled national economy. Unemployment, underemployment, and job insecurity, as well as a ballooning debt burden, depreciation of the rupee, inflation and rise in cost of living have led to a dramatic drop in real wages, income and pensions and a rise in inequalities. Some 70% of our labour force works in the informal sector; they have almost no access to social security schemes.

Q. What do you think precipitated the President’s decision to replace the Prime Minister, prorogue Parliament, then dissolve it?

A. The reason has been best explained by the President himself: revelation of credible information about a plot to assassinate him and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in which a cabinet Minister was reportedly involved and yet the then Prime Minister had failed to act. In case of the President’s death, the Prime Minister, according to the Constitution, would have replaced him. In similar circumstances, how do you think a President in any other country would have reacted?

Q. What about the Tamil people? The TNA has requested Western powers to intervene to solve the crisis. Can the Tamil issue be resolved through external intervention?

A. Whatever grievances we have among ourselves as Sri Lankans must and can only be resolved by ourselves, without external interference. The US, Europe, Canada and Australia, in particular, have lost all credibility, internationally, as champions of human rights and democracy and that reputation goes way back to colonialism, the pillage of Asia, Africa and the Americas, the genocide of indigenous peoples, and the slave trade.

Sri Lanka’s most recent experience of such savage wars in which they were involved and their hypocrisy is their support to LTTE, which terrorised not only the ‘Sinhala enemy’, but other Tamils. Critiques were hanged or assassinated as traitors; children were forcibly abducted and sent to the battlefront; Tamils here and abroad were threatened and intimidated to extort money…

Ordinary people, whether Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim, German, French, have similar aspirations. Neoliberal policies deprive them of control over their lives, with so-called globalization shifting decision-making to global corporates, taking it beyond their reach. That’s what Brexit was about and the struggle of the Greek people, or the growing movement in Europe for the restoration of sovereignty.

Let’s not forget that ordinary Tamils in the north and east began to support the LTTE only after the UNP regime under J.R. Jayewardene threw open the national economy, depriving farmers of their markets as cheap imports of onions, chilies, potatoes, vegetables, tobacco, even rice, flooded the market, and affecting also the livelihood of fishermen. It is noteworthy that in 1983, one-third of fisheries exports were from Jaffna.

Q. Have foreign diplomats and UN officials the right to interfere in the internal affairs of States?

A. International law prohibits states from interfering in the internal affairs of other States.

This is based on the UN Charter principles of sovereign equality between States, the maintenance of international peace and security, and the promotion of friendly relations among nations, which have subsequently been further elaborated and incorporated into numerous international conventions governing relations between states.

The prohibition of interference by diplomats is expressly codified in diplomatic law, particularly, the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which stipulates in Article 41 that they have a duty “to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State” and “not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.” It also provides that all official business with the receiving State “shall be conducted with or through the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the receiving State or such other ministry as may be agreed”.

A few days ago, in a tweet to Namal Rajapaksa, the German Ambassador Joern Rohde and Canadian High Commissioner David McKinnon sought to divert attention from the furore caused by Western interference in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, acting as though we are still a colony and they, proconsuls. The German Ambassador tweeted in defense of his Canadian and other Western colleagues, “To listen to all sides is part of our job!”

It was not “listening to all sides” that was the problem. Listening to all sides “by all lawful means” so as to ascertain conditions and developments in the receiving State and report back to the sending State is a recognised diplomatic function (1961 Vienna Convention, Art. 3).

The problem was elsewhere. They were not just ‘listening’ to all sides, but taking sides in an internal dispute, which is not authorised by the Vienna Convention. They were demanding that parliament be reconvened “to express its opinion without delay”, they had taken it upon themselves to determine that the decisions taken by Sri Lanka’s President were unconstitutional and Canada even called on the President to “rescind the decision to prorogue”. Those accusations came bolstered with threats of sanctions.

Sri Lanka has its own Constitution, which is the expression of the sovereign will of our people, it has its laws, it is a functioning democracy. The President derives his power from the people.

The sole and exclusive jurisdiction to hear and determine questions relating to interpretation of the Constitution belongs to the Supreme Court, according to Art. 125 of the Constitution. The other option is a general election so that the people in whom sovereignty is vested may express their will.

Ambassador Rohde will know what I am talking about. In his own country, only recently, there was a huge political outcry to expel the US Ambassador Richard Grenell for taking sides. Martin Schulz, former leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), said, “What this man is doing is unprecedented in international diplomacy.

If a German Ambassador in Washington said ‘I’m here to strengthen the Democratic Party’, he would be thrown out immediately.” He accused Grenell of not behaving like a diplomat by maintaining a neutral stance toward his host country, but acting “like a right-wing colonial officer.”

The Co-chair of the Die Linke Party, Sahra Wagenknecht, called for Grenell’s withdrawal. She said if people like him “can dictate like a lord of the manor who rules in Europe and who doesn’t, they can no longer remain in Germany as a diplomat.”

Another SPD MP added, “European citizens don’t need a Trump vassal to tell them who to vote for. A US ambassador who meddles in the democratic process to such a degree is simply misplaced.”

In yet another controversial statement, the US Ambassador called on German companies to “wind down operations immediately” with Iran, to which a former German ambassador to Washington Wolfgang Ischinger tweeted: “Ric: my advice, after a long ambassadorial career: … never tell the host country what to do, if you want to stay out of trouble. Germans are eager to listen, but they will resent instructions.”

What is valid for the US Ambassador in Germany is valid for the German Ambassador in Sri Lanka, and what is good for Germans must be good for Sri Lankans! After all, states enjoy sovereign equality!

Our leaders must have the political will, the courage and the dignity to defend our country’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. If we are a free nation today, it is precisely because brave patriots – Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, Malay – were ready to make even the ultimate sacrifice to fight British colonialism, and more recently, LTTE terror and separatism.

Sri Lanka has on other occasions declared foreign diplomatic officials persona non grata and expelled them for interfering in our internal affairs, under Article 9 of the Vienna Convention. The expulsion of British High Commissioner David Gladstone in June 1991 by the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa, is a well-known case. In June this year, even a small country like Nepal directed the UN to close its Department of Political Affairs (DPA) unit in Nepal with immediate effect, asking staff to leave the country within three months. The closure came in the backdrop of accusations that UN cover was being used to aid secessionist activities in collaboration with western countries. The DPA unit was also found conducting an unauthorized political survey under cover of the UN Resident Coordinator.

In December 2011, the Government of Nepal closed the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) in the country, despite pressures from the US, Europe, and OHCHR. Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had opposed the direct involvement of OHCHR in training the Nepal Army, Nepal Police and the Armed Police Force.

Q. The West has threatened sanctions if Sri Lanka does not fulfil commitments made under Human Rights Council resolution 30/1. The previous regime co-sponsored the resolution. Should the people fear sanctions?

A. The European Union and the Canadian High Commissioner McKinnon made that threat in the current context. The EU blatantly violated the 1961 Vienna Conventon by linking sanctions to the “return of Mahinda Rajapaksa, as Prime Minister.” McKinnon’s target was both the President and the new Prime Minister, not Ranil Wickremesinghe, who signed that ignominious resolution. Sanctions are a foreign policy tool of the West aimed at pressuring or changing governments that refuse servility by making life difficult for ordinary people. In reality, it is not the imposition of sanctions that is successful, but the threat. Many countries do not carry out the threat, because imposing sanctions have often proven counterproductive, stiffening resistance and contributing to growth of patriotism and nationalism. It can also boomerang back on their own economy.

If imposed, their effectiveness depends on the extent to which the country is politically and economically dependent on those imposing sanctions. They have been most effective against friends and allies, because by aligning yourself with your real adversary, you isolate yourself politically and economically, making yourself even more vulnerable. We must keep in mind sanctions against Sri Lanka will be Western, never African, Latin American, Asian, or Russian.

They will be unilateral, not multilateral, which are a violation of international law, international humanitarian law, the Charter and the norms and principles governing peaceful relations among States. It is therefore important that Sri Lanka does not isolate itself from its natural friends and allies.

Under Yahapalana, Sri Lanka’s financial dependence on the West has grown, especially on more risky financial markets and corporate banks whose interest rates are higher and repayment periods shorter, increasing the dollar-denominated foreign debt. Despite an incessant campaign about Sri Lanka being dragged into a Chinese debt trap, loans from China by end 2014 amounted to only 8% of Total Debt or 18.8% of its foreign debt; the amount owed for the Hambantota Port was 2.1% of the Total Debt.

We should start thinking of ourselves as a free people, not slaves. We must develop an economy that relies on its own people and resources, and strengthen economic and other relations with states that respect the principle of sovereign equality, cooperation, solidarity, and complementarity.

We must remember that it is because they need us more than we need them that the US and its allies exercise disproportionate pressure on us, act in ways that support partition of the country, investing heavily in regime change in 2015, imposing the HRC resolution 30/1, pursuing its implementation, and heavily funding neoliberal think tanks and NGOs in Sri Lanka. They need our territory, our resources, our ports and harbours, our land and rivers, our markets, our labour, our savings, our capital and our institutions, to maintain global hegemony, control a strategic maritime route to Asia’s wealth and establish a military command post to fight their war against China.

Those afraid of sanctions should take a closer look at how the Cuban people have fared despite 56 years of a criminal US blockade and third party sanctions imposed by a country separated only by 90 miles of ocean. In 2018, Cuba had a high ranking of 73 in the UNDP Human Development Index, with Sri Lanka coming behind, ranked 76.

We should keep in mind that it is not sanctions that are the cause of the systemic crisis we face today; it is the neoliberal policies imposed by the same countries that threaten us with sanctions. We have more to fear from Ranil Wickremesinghe’s pro-Western neoliberal policies than from Western sanctions! 

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