Not quite paradise?

As David Cameron attends a controversial Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka saying engagement is a more effective tool than a boycott, talks to Dr Saravanamuttu, the Executive Director of Sri Lanka’s Centre for Policy Alternatives

Photo Credit: Prime Minister's Office

Photo Credit: Prime Minister’s Office

On the wall of Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu’s Colombo office hangs an explicit poster denouncing him “and his gangs” as traitors. This is just one example of the Sri Lankan government’s sustained hate campaign against a man who continues to defy the prescribed lines of state censorship. We met in Colombo, where he strongly condemned the notion of Sri Lanka as a formal functioning democracy.

Dr Saravanamuttu is the Executive Director of Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA). As a Convenor of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) and founding Board member of the Sri Lanka Chapter of Transparency International, he believes Sri Lanka is under serious threat. “We are sliding into authoritarianism. What you have is a power structure that is basically a dynastic project underpinned by a strong majoritarian ideology. All of this is given a boost by the victory in the war. So you are dealing with threats coming from that dynastic domination, and the almost complete collapse of the rule of law, as a consequence of the politicisation of the institutions of the state.”

“The real no-go area for the local media is the defence estabilishment. Because of the various attacks on media institutions, they went into self-censorship mode and it hasn’t quite got out of it. So what they won’t touch is any criticism of the Defence Secretary unless it’s by a columnist. They won’t really cover what is actually happening in the North and East. So anything to do with the whole issues of war crimes and the number dead they don’t really cover. They will be critical of governance issues in the South. So largely it’s a self-censorship of the most sensitive areas. Arguably the most powerful man next to the President is the Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. There hasn’t been a single cartoon depicting Gotabye in the last five or six years. They are terribly scared.”

The military is involved in the economy and are now asking for legislation to permit them to engage in commercial activities, “which is a bit ironic as they already do that. You have them taking land away from civilians.” Citizens in the North complain of the government taking their land, and relinquishing it to service personnel for cultivation.

“The particular land everyone is talking about is in a district in Jaffna, where the government have claimed they cannot locate the landowners, which is absolute nonsense. 9,000 landowners are involved. Something close to 2,500 have filed cases now in court, so the notion that they can’t locate them is unconvincing. They are going to build government offices; there is talk of a presidential palace. There is already a hotel on that land, where landowners are not allowed to go in and see their land. Yet the main opposition party actually made a reservation under the name of one of the Boston bombers and it was accepted.

“So it’s all-pervasive in that sense, you have the militarisation, and then also allied to that the collapse of the rule of law. Impunity is the religious intolerance part of that. The BBS [Bodu Bala Sena] – all these groups have the support of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He was the chief guest at their leadership academy training. We have photographic and video evidence which show that these people have been involved in criminal acts against Muslims. Whilst police are standing there not doing anything. So you have a regime, which because of the allegations of war crimes, have to literally and metaphorically live and die in power. They can’t get out of power, because once they do, they lose their immunity.”

Dr Saravanamuttu believes that between Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and sessions in March in Geneva, there will be a Presidential election. They will call for a mandate to abolish the thirteenth amendment to the country’s constitution, which created Provincial Councils and made Sinhala and Tamil the official languages of the country.

“Then tell the international community that this is a formal functioning democracy and the people have given them the mandate to abolish the thirteenth amendment.” Describing the thirteenth amendment as a flawed, incomplete and inadequate document, he concludes, “A political settlement has to go beyond that.”

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