A certain predictability has developed in the public exchange on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. In keeping with this predictability, the UN Human Rights Commission recent report on Sri Lanka’s continuing serious human rights abuses is yet another expression of deep international concern which, almost certainly, will end up gathering dust.
The Human Rights Commission report lists a litany of egregious human rights violations perpetrated by the Government of Sri Lanka or its agents dating back to the end of that country’s ethnic war in 2009. In response, the Government of Sri Lanka continues to deny all such accusations, claiming there is an international conspiracy against it and that the evidence is manufactured, falling back on the argument that its actions were predicated on crushing terrorism.
With the backing of states less sympathetic to human rights issues, Sri Lanka has, since 2008, been immune from expressions of international concern. Attempts to impose an internationally driven solution to its human rights situation or the fate of its ethnic Tamil minority have been blocked in the UN Security Council by Sri Lanka’s main international guarantor, China.
China’s interest in Sri Lanka is part of its so-called ‘String of Pearls’ strategic push into the Indian Ocean. However, with China making inroads into India’s strategic sphere of influence, India has also been keen to try to keep Sri Lanka on side following its troubled relationship.
As an initial gesture towards the West, Sri Lanka did allow a circumscribed ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ investigation into the vast scale of atrocities that occurred in the period to May 2009. It was at that time that some 40,000 people were killed by intense government army attacks against civilians sheltering on a sliver of land in Sri Lanka’s north- east coast.
Yet even the innocuous report that came from this tame commission was effectively ignored, reflecting the government’s distaste for anything that does not accord with its brutally hard line on Sri Lanka’s ‘Tamil question’. So it was with the just released UN Human Rights Commission report on ‘Promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka’.
UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay found that, despite previous recommendations, there had been no action by the government on issues of enforced ‘disappearances’, hate speech, witness protection or improved ‘truth seeking’ processes. She noted that there remained several outstanding human rights problems to be addressed by the Sri Lanka government.
Among continuing human rights problems identified by Ms Pillay were continued limitations on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, freedom of opinion and expression, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and enforced or involuntary disappearances. In this, she expressed concern over the role and security of human rights defenders, the independence of judges and lawyers and discrimination against women both in law and in practice.
Overall, Ms Pillay said, there had been little movement towards addressing issues of truth about human rights abuses, issues of justice and reparation for victims, and guarantees of non-recurrence of human rights violations. All of these issues have also been highlighted by civil society organisations in Sri Lanka such as the Centre for Policy Alternatives.
In response to the report, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Envoy in Geneva, Ravinatha Aryasinha, ran the government’s usual line, claiming that the details of Ms Pillay’s report ‘reflect the preconceived, politicised and prejudicial agenda which she has relentlessly pursued with regard to Sri Lanka’. He accused Ms Pillay of ‘double standards’ and paying ‘scant or no regard to the domestic processes ongoing in Sri Lanka’.
He also criticized Ms Pillay’s report for arriving at conclusions in a ‘selective and arbitrary manner’ while ignoring requests from the Sri Lankan government to provide factual evidence to substantiate allegations and to otherwise not make ‘general comments’.
Yet Ms Pillay is not alone in the concerns expressed in her report. A petition signed by leading international figures, headed by South Afrca’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has called for an independent international investigation in the form of a Commission of Inquiry. ‘Only this will help to put the country on the path to justice and reconciliation’, the petition says. Similar comments have been expressed by the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch.
Underpinning the culture of impunity which informs Sri Lanka’s poor human rights record is a heightened sense of ethnic chauvinism and religious intolerance that has increasingly characterised Sri Lankan politics. This is now institutionalised under the Rajapaksa government, which has enjoyed massive ethnic Sinhalese support following the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers.
Since coming to office, President Rajapaksa’s government has been intolerant of dissent or opposition and has fostered a climate of fear. This initially focused on the country’s ethnic Tamil population, but has since spread to ethnic Sinhalese uncomfortable with the direction of Sri Lanka’s politics.
Sinhalese journalists are now regularly intimidated, occasionally abducted and sometimes murdered. Reporters Without Borders has consequently ranked Sri Lanka at 165th of 180 countries assessed. This shift away from plural politics towards a closed chauvinist ethno-politics has increasingly closed the distinction between the individual and the state, giving Sri Lanka an distinctly authoritarian hue.
For Tamils, despite the wars’ formal end, they remain second-class citizens in their country of birth. The north and east of the country, where most Tamils live, continues to function under military occupation, in which Tamil civilians do not know from day to day whether they will be subject to an arbitrary search, rape, torture or disappearance.
Despite concerns expressed by more liberal sections of the international community, and Ms Pillay’s report and others like it, the Sri Lanka government refuses to budge. With the backing of China, Russia and Pakistan, it is under little real pressure to do so.
Once relatively free, Sri Lanka has now firmly joined that list of authoritarian states that primarily acknowledge basic human rights in the breech. Despite the Human Rights Commission report, and others like it, there appears little the West can now do.
It was, perhaps, an act of optimism to believe that a media conference would be called by the Thai army to explain, as it had announced, its concrete plans for the restoration of Thailand’s democracy. This is especially so given that, when local journalists questioned Thai army officials a few days ago about when democracy would be restored, the news conference was promptly ended.
Yesterday afternoon, Thai army spokesman Colonel Sirichan Ngathong said the junta’s plans were to take steps towards restoring normal administration to the country, establish a legislative council and a reform council and work towards holding democratic elections in a time frame yet to be determined. That is, the anti-government "yellow shirt" key claim has been met, and the terms of "democratic elections" will be determined by a constitution that is yet to be written.
Of the information that is otherwise available, little of it relates to Thailand being under army lockdown and, where that is mentioned, it is in formal and strictly factual terms. What we do know is that the international broadcast media has been blocked, that local journalists have been called in for questioning, with some arrested, and editors have been formally warned.
Around 250 people have now been arrested by the junta, with those few handfuls who have been released having signed a pledge not to oppose the junta’s activities. The army is continuing to hunt for many more, issuing public broadcasts for people to hand themselves in.
At the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, however, a handful of news hacks propped up the bar, given there is little else they can do. All foreign news channels are blocked.
The once-proud BBC went missing in action before the coup was even announced. Locals are now asking themselves if the BBC was taken off the air because it was an unfettered voice of international journalism, or just because its reporting of local events had become so superficial and, seemingly, ill-informed.
The army has also warned that it will limit internet access to block social media from discussing the coup. Facebook was taken down for 37 minutes on Wednesday, although this was said by an army spokesman to be a "gateway" problem.
However, Facebook, Line, Instagram and YouTube have been identified for potential closure if they promote "divisiveness" or "infringe on the monarchy". There is also a related move by the junta to closely screen information sent via the internet.
These threats, and to crack down strongly on any further protests, reflect a growing sense of frustration by the army over what it views as a lack of compliance with its world view, and continuing if limited protests around Bangkok.
Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol who, under increasingly strict lese majeste laws, cannot have anything said about him that could be construed as less than supportive, is said by the army to have condoned the coup. The king has condoned military coups in the past.
However, the much-loved 86-year-old king, who has been in poor health, has not been seen in public during this period of military control. The venerated king has also not issued a statement under his own name.
But there is no question as to who is in control in Thailand. The area around the Victory Monument, which has been a daily protest site, has now been reopened to traffic, if with a continuing military presence to ensure that protesters do not return. Soldiers lounged by their trucks along the main roads on the outskirts of Bangkok, while a machine-gun armed Hummer patrolled a main road near the Thailand stock exchange.
After having yet again deposed a democratically elected government, the Thai junta’s plans to restore "democracy" raises questions over the meaning of the term. That the junta also has no time frame in which to do so similarly raises a variation of the legal adage that democracy delayed is democracy denied.
Thailand’s army has tightened its grip on the country’s domestic political process since launching its coup d‘etat last Thursday. Up to 200 politicians, journalists, academics and activists have been arrested, with more ordered to surrender to authorities. The media have been tightly restricted on what can be reported and there has even been a brief shut-down of social media sites.
The army’s National Council for Peace and Order's (NCPO), now acting as the government, dissolved Thailand’s semi-appointed Senate over the weekend, ending speculation that the army would use the conservative Senate appoint an interim prime minister. With this move, coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha assumed all parliamentary authority, although he has appointed a small body of advisers.
Further tightening the army’s grip on Thai politics, officers not deemed to be supportive of the coup, including national police chief General Adul Saengsinglaew, defence secretary General Nipat Thonglek and Special Investigations Department director-general General Tarit Pengdith, have also been sacked.
Thailand’s land borders have been closed and senior ousted government Pheu Thai Party figures who have not yet surrendered to the army have had their bank accounts frozen.
Further details have emerged as to how the coup was staged. The army chief called a meeting for 2pm last Thursday of Thailand’s government and opposition leaders, senators, election commissioners and key figures in the pro-government ‘red shirt’ and anti-government ‘yellow shirt’ factions to a meeting at army headquarters last Thursday. The meeting was ostensibly to avoid further yellow shirt protests planned for the weekend.
The talks became deadlocked over demands that the government resign and whether and when there would be fresh elections. When, two and a half hours after the meeting started, General Prayuth asked government Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitisiri whether the government would resign, Chaikasem said it would not. General Prayuth then said he was seizing political power.
While most of the politicians at the meeting were then detained, senators, election commissioners and Opposition Democrat Party leader and former prime minister Abhisit Vejajjiva was freed. Yellow shirt protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban was also freed a short time later, indicating the army's political preferences.
It is now thought that the army will remain in power until Thailand can go to new elections under a new constitution, probably not until next year.
The new constitution, when it comes, is expected to include limits on majority rule, including increasing the appointment of members of parliament, formerly limited to 74 of the 150 members of the Senate. There have also been calls for extending the political role of the now ageing King Bhumibol Adulyadej or his successor.
Meanwhile, in Thailand’s pro-government ‘red-shirt’ heartland of Khon Kaen in the country’s impoverished north-east, there were arrests over the weekend of 21 people said to be in possession of weapons and explosives, sparking fears of an armed anti-coup insurrection. An army spokesman claimed the group was supposed to launch the first stage of an armed insurrection against the new military junta.
Meanwhile, numerous , if small, anti-coup protests have sprung up in direct defiance of the government’s ban on gatherings of more than five people. Soldiers and police have so far acted with restraint in the face of the growing protests.
In Thailand's restive south, however, there have been more than 20 bomb blasts and further shootings since the declaration of martial law. Young Muslim militants, some who have now trained on the battlefields of Syria, have returned with a much less compromising approach to how their own political claims should be settled.
Thailand's main towns remained relatively quiet, but there was also an undercurrent that this situation - and Thailand's military rule - would not go unchallenged.
The announcement yesterday by Indonesian presidential candidate Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo that his vice-presidential running mate will be former vice-president Jusuf Kalla has calmed concerns that Indonesia could be headed back towards an era of increased military influence. Until yesterday, it had been suggested that Jokowi’s running mate would be hard-line retired general Ryamizard Ryacudu.
Jokowi’s main competition for the presidency comes from hard-line former general Prabowo Subianto, who was cashiered out of the army in 1998 for human rights abuses. Prabowo was the son-in-law of former President Suharto, and was implicated in atrocities in East Timor and West Papua, as well as against student protesters in Jakarta in 1998.
The orientation of Jokowi, a populist, towards the army is unknown. However, he will represent the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) in the presidential race, with PDI-P having in the past been sympathetic to a military response to security problems.
However, Jusuf Kalla is likely to bring a moderate and technocratic influence to government, should he and Jokowi be successful. Current opinion polls suggest that they will have a comfortable victory in July’s presidential elections.
Jusuf Kalla was vice-president during out-going president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s first and most successful term in office. It was during this time that Yudhoyono pushed through his main reforms, with Kalla playing a key role in many of them.
Among other roles, Kalla was given overall responsibility for the 2005 Aceh peace talks, which ultimately ended almost three decades of separatist war in Aceh and introduced a high degree of local autonomy. Kalla directed his two trusted lieutenants, then Justice Minister Hamid Awaluddin and Social Welfare Deputy Minister Farid Hussein, who were important to the success of the talks. Kalla had previously led efforts to resolve conflicts in Ambon and Poso.
While Jokowi is from Central Java, Kalla is from Sulawesi, providing a geographic balance that is usually regarded as desirable in a presidential election team. Prabowo is seconded by Indonesia’s richest man and chairman of Golkar party, Aburizal Bakrie, a West Javanese born in Jakarta. Kalla is a former chairman of Golkar, which may see a split in the vote of Indonesia’s second largest political party.
A Jokowi-Kalla team, whould it be successful, is likely to keep Indonesia on a path of continued moderate democratic reform. It is also likely to be less assertively nationalist than an administration led by Prabowo.
When a government cuts spending, its non-voting constituents are always going to fare worse than those who do vote. Whatever residual anger might come at the next federal elections, Australia’s aid recipients won’t be a part of that vote.
As compared to budget cuts of $7.6 billion over the next five years, or a little over $1.5 billion a year, the government’s trimming of just $107 million from the $5 billion aid budget in January looks positively generous. An earlier bipartisan commitment to lift Australian aid spending to 0.5% of gross national income, delayed until 2017-18, now appears entirely gone.
Australia has an international obligation under the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to spend 0.7% of its gross national income on foreign aid by 2020. That also appears to be no longer within the realms of foreseeable reality.
The Coalition's had a pre-election commitment to grow the aid budget in line with inflation. But, riffing off former prime minister John Howard’s "core" and "non-core" promises, that appears to have joined the substantial list of "non-significant" promises.
Yet Australia’s aid budget, and the uses to which it is put, is the better face of the "white tribe of Asia". Moreover, some regional governments only marginally concerned with cuts to Australian aid will measure this spending reprioritisation against Australia’s defence build-up. An 11% increase in the defence budget stands in stark contrast to the aid cuts, and sends a less benign signal to our neighbours.
Even Crikey’s sober readers, considering aid cuts set against wider cuts, might be saying, "So what?" Australia’s aid budget has been, overwhelmingly, aimed at the Asia-Pacific region. In this area, there are 757 million people in extreme poverty, usually defined as living on less that $1 a day.
Australia cannot fix this problem by itself, and regional governments do need to lift their respective games. But, to the extent that Australia has committed to assist, that promise has been broken to more than just ourselves.
With some regional governments being miffed, Australia will lose diplomatically from this budget. But the real losers from Australia’s aid parsimony will be those whose existence is just this side of total calamity and, for want of a few cents a day each, may now slip to the other side.
Thailand’s political roller coaster has taken a sharp downward turn, with the country’s constitutional court forcing Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and a number of ministers to resign over an alleged "abuse of power", in what her supporters are calling a constitutional coup. A caretaker prime minister has been appointed by the remaining cabinet, but the country now appears to be headed towards a political showdown.
The court’s ruling, over the transfer of a senior security official in 2011, was marked by rushing proceedings and not allowing Yingluck to present key witnesses in court. The ousted prime minister’s supporters have claimed since the proceedings were first initiated that they were being orchestrated by anti-democratic forces.
It has been reported in the Thai media that the anti-government demonstrations, which had been disrupting Bangkok, were funded by figures who wish to see the country’s royal family have an active role in Thai politics. Anti-government protesters have been calling for the replacement of the government with a non-elected "people’s council".
Although always deeply opposed to the Shinawatra family’s grip on political power, the anti-government group was roused to new levels of anger when Yingluck Sinawatra presented a bill to Parliament granting amnesty for her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, over a corruption conviction. The amnesty would have allowed Thaksin to return from self-imposed exile. Thaksin was ousted as prime minister in a coup in 2006 and was subsequently convicted of corruption.
Opposition forces were further angered when Yingluck attempted to change the 2007 constitution to make Parliament’s upper house fully elected, as it was before the 2006 coup, rather than partially appointed. Such a move would have broken the entrenched power of Thailand’s conservative elite, which has been behind the recent anti-government protests.
Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party, already dominant in the lower house, would have been likely to have been handed a majority in both houses of Parliament had the move succeeded. However, at the urging of the opposition Democratic Party, the conservatively aligned courts overruled the constitutional amendment last year.
Thai politics has been increasingly characterised as a division between pro-government "red shirts" and anti-government "yellow shirts", defined by the former’s power base in the north and north-east of the country and among Bangkok’s working class, and the latter among Bangkok’s middle and upper classes and the south of the country.
However, the divisions also run to views on the role of the monarchy, with succession to the frail King Bhumibol Adulyadej increasingly imminent, patronage networks, the role of the military and police, and a range of other economic, social and cultural factors. While this complex of factors had earlier ensured some fluidity in Thai politics, positions have increasingly hardened and divided since Thaksin’s ouster in 2006.
The "constitutional coup" against Yingluck Shinawatra will only further entrench those divisions. Red shirt supporters are now planning to march on Bangkok, in a reversal of the tactics that plunged the capital into chaos from late last year.
In a state of political flux, the opposition will now be pushing for the establishment of its proposed "people’s council", to which its members would be appointed. This is their preferred alternative to going to fresh elections and again facing the prospect of defeat.
Historically excluded from the levers of power, Thailand’s poor have, through the patronage of the Shinawatra family, experienced some of the economic benefits of political power. They now seem to be reluctant to give up such benefits without a fight.
Having experienced the effectiveness of the yellow shirts’ mass protests and building occupations, the red shirts can be expected to try something similar soon. The only question will be whether Thailand’s traditionally more conservative security forces show as much restraint against the red shirts as they had against the yellow shirts.
In any case, Thailand’s experiment with democracy, so promising at so many levels, now appears to be all but permanently broken. It may, perhaps, be restored, if in a diminished sense. But the idea that a majority of people can choose a government without restriction now appears to have been removed from Thailand’s political agenda for the foreseeable future.
As eastern Ukraine spirals out of control, the interim government in Kiev is desperately seeking to renegotiate the Geneva agreement, aimed at restoring a semblance of unity in the now deeply divided state. Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, appears happy adjusting levers of strategic power to apply pressure, in turn in Donetsk, Sloviansk and now in Odessa.
It is not yet clear whether the eastern Russian-speaking region will actually separate from Ukraine, whether Russia will invade or if regional destabilisation is just being used to achieve other ends. At least as likely as invasion, this destablisation is just a bloody game to achieve Russia’s regional economic and strategic goals.
There is no doubt that Russia is providing most of the impetus for separatism in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions. First Crimea separated from Ukraine, with the direct intervention of what Putin first denied and then later admitted were Russian troops without insignia. Now "paramilitaries" with identical unmarked uniforms and weapons are active in eastern Ukraine. These paramilitaries are providing both direction and reinforcement to separatist Ukrainian Russian-speakers.
There is fear within the Kiev government that pushing back against the pro-Russian occupation of key towns and installations in the east will provoke a direct Russian invasion. This will, many believe, be rationalised by the deaths of Russian speakers.
However, short of mass casualties among Russian speakers, which would spark an artificially constructed Russian variation of the "responsibility to protect" paradigm, such an overt intervention is unlikely. The intention of the Russian government appears to be to pressure the Kiev interim government into reversing its position on embracing the European Union and NATO to one of returning to mother Russia.
To achieve this outcome, Russia is balancing its role in eastern Ukraine. Should Russia overtly invade, it would be politically difficult to withdraw and leave Russian speakers living within a Ukrainian state. Such an intervention would almost certainly require absorption of Russian-speaking areas into Russia proper.
More usefully, Russia will exert maximum pressure on the government in Kiev without invading. Russia does not wish to lose the leverage that would come from leaving Ukraine nominally intact but internally divided. In this, Crimea was useful as an object of lesson to the Kiev government for what could happen in eastern Ukraine. It was not necessarily a precursor to what will happen.
In the meantime, what amounts to a deadly theatre is being played out in Odessa, Donetsk, Sloviansk, Konstantinovka, Slavyansk, Andreyevka and Kramatorsk. Dozens have now died, and Ukraine’s security forces are demoralised and, in part, divided.
Since invading Georgia in 2008, Russia has been much more prepared to directly intervene in the affairs of its neighbors. Regional control is much more important to Moscow than international rule of law.
But Moscow does not wish to reincorporate Ukraine entirely, as it did once within the former Soviet Union. Ukraine serves a more convenient purpose if it remains nominally independent but performs to a classically pessimistic script drafted by the Kremlin.
Such a script, by default, portrays Moscow as the powerful yet torn protagonist. In this, Russia’s dramas, vanities and intemperances are writ large. By way of contrast, the minor, peripheral characters are increasingly being rehearsed in their role to be one of subservience and supplication in this Slavic tragedy.
Russia's political leaders appear to be taking a particular pleasure in the planned and co-ordinated dismemberment of Ukraine. As with any unprincipled thug, Russia’s only constraint is ensuring it remains internationally unaccountable while continuing to dismantle its vulnerable neighbour.
Russia is now breaking off pieces of the country at will and ignoring international protestations while feigning innocence. The eastern Ukraine town of Slaviansk is now firmly under the control of thinly disguised Russian troops and their local compatriots, with Ukraine reluctant to act for fear of provoking even greater Russian intervention.
That pro-Russian militia took military observers from Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe hostage only further highlights Russia’s intransigence towards a genuinely negotiated resolution of the crisis. The arrest of the observers, on the pretext they were spying, was a simple demonstration of Russia’s rejection of any external involvement in events in eastern Ukraine; the release of one on health grounds was an all-but-inconsequential gesture.
European and United States protestations at the events in eastern Ukraine are having no effect on Russia’s actions, nor are proposed economic sanctions by the G7 expected to be strong or co-ordinated enough to be meaningful. In any case, Russia has already factored sanctions into its game plan.
As with threats of US intervention following the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria last year, Russia has fobbed off US concerns by agreeing to terms it had no intention of keeping. Russia was to urge moderation on pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, retaining the fiction that they are not actual Russian soldiers.
While some of the heavily armed and uniformed militia in eastern Ukraine are, no doubt, locals who have volunteered or been recruited to the service of the militant separatist movement, others are clearly uniformed Russian soldiers without identifying insignia. These Russian soldiers are identical to those Russian troops without insignia who, with support of Russian-speaking locals, overthrew Ukraine control of Crimea in February.
Meanwhile, despite Russia’s earlier agreement to draw down troop numbers massed on Ukraine’s border, there are some 40,000 soldiers still in place, along with military "exercises" that look like preparations for invasion. This, too, however, is part of Russia’s "psychological warfare" game plan, whereby it has not technically invaded Ukraine, but the threat of doing so undermines Ukraine’s interim Parliament’s every thought and move.
While Russia is very unlikely to invade Ukraine, it is absolutely intent on seeing Ukraine rewrite the country’s constitution to create autonomous -- Russian-aligned -- regions. It also wants Ukraine to hold new elections, producing a parliament with a dominant core of pro-Russian members, and an agreement to turn away from the European Union and embrace Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union.
In all of this, as with the US in some of its own ventures in Latin America, Russia sees Ukraine as clearly within its own sphere of influence. And there is no doubt that if events in Ukraine are handled badly, they could create a much bigger and more serious regional problem.
But the US, Europe and even Russia are all keen to avoid an uncontrolled escalation of the Ukraine crisis, especially in ways that could spill across borders. To that end, Russia is being a regional thug but, with no one prepared or, indeed, able to force a halt to its carefully calculated actions, it is likely to get the final outcome it wishes.