by Rajan Philips
No one in America would have noticed their roving Secretary of State taking off on an official visit to Asia during the last week of this year’s presidential election campaign. For that matter, even in Asia far more people are following the US election than paying attention to Mike Pompeo’s visit to their countries. In India especially, there is likely to be a very keen interest in the current US election if only because Kamala Harris, the Democratic candidate for Vice President, is the American born daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father. Mr. Pompeo of course belongs to the Republican Party. Not merely is he not a formally apolitical diplomat, he belongs to the right wing faction of the Republican Party – the infamous Tea Party faction. A former Congressman, Pompeo has future presidential ambitions and was strongly encouraged by the Republican Party to run for the Senate seat in Kansas this year. He decided not to. So, what is he doing now visiting India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Indonesia? Especially India, with Defence Secretary Mark Esper, on a so called ‘2+2 dialogue’ visit – diplomatese for bilateral meetings between the External Affairs and Defence Ministers of two countries?
Did either Prime Minister Modi or President Rajapaksa ask Secretary Pompeo, “You think Trump will win?” The way Boris Yeltsin is said to have asked Bill Clinton as they shook hands on the steps of the White House, “You think OJ is innocent?” This is according to CNN’s Larry King, in 1995, during the OJ Simpson trial that transformed the Atlanta (Georgia) based CNN into a global gossip machine. The November 3 presidential election is being described as hugely consequential, and the results will be consequential for Pompeo himself. There is not much certainty that if Trump wins he will keep Pompeo as Secretary, and he will certainly be out if Trump were to lose. Three times out of four the chances are that Mr. Pompeo may not remain as Secretary after the January inauguration of either the incumbent Trump, or challenger Joe Biden.
A Trump second term will ensure the continuity of unpredictable chaos in US foreign policy. A Biden victory, on the other hand, will likely restore it to the pre-Trump era, perhaps more in tone and style than in substance. Far reaching changes under a Biden presidency are likely to be mostly on the domestic front, at least in the short term. Reversing the Trump legacy in global affairs will take time. There will not be much of a reversal in substance, in America’s policy towards China and Asia.
If there is a pattern to Trump’s foreign policy, there are also about five aspects to it. First, the repudiation of everything that Obama did; to wit, the Paris Climate Accord, and the Iran Nuclear Deal. Second, Trump’s rhetoric of making America great again, a bigoted and racist version of the old unilateralism. Third, the straining of America’s ties with its traditional western allies all of which are constitutional democracies given to disciplined and institutionalized decision making in internal and external affairs. Trump’s bullying and browbeating of NATO, its member countries, and leaders are in this category. Fourth, making new connections with regions and governments which are more autocratic and with whom agreements can be reached through personalized transactions without little or no institutional engagements. Trump’s personal admiration for Putin, his “good feelings” for Erdogan and Duterte, the mutual-admiration diplomacy with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and the recent agreements involving Israel, the small Gulf States and Sudan under American auspices, are examples of Trump’s global initiatives. It is also well within his presidential pale to look for business opportunities for the Trump enterprise in the external deals he makes for America.
India, China, and America
The fifth and final aspect of Trump’s foreign policy involving China draws on all of the above and ratchets them up into the uniquely Trumpian tariff tantrums. Nonetheless, there is considerable consensus within America and the western hemisphere – about being tough on China. There is also a quiet and begrudging admission in the West and in China’s officialdom that Trump’s impulsive tactics have been effective. The difference under a Biden Administration would be in taking a multilateral approach towards the Asian power unlike the personalized style and unilateral thrust that Trump has been wielding. The rest of Asia is caught in the middle, with the difference that East Asian countries are more directly implicated than South Asian countries.
India, unmoored from its old Cold War, Soviet era alliances that excluded the US, is now central to the US response to the rising Chinese challenge in Asia. In addition, the Modi government and Trump Administration have much common ideologically, and the recent border skirmishes between India and China have given the US a reason to take India’s side and protest against China. Secretary Pompeo did just that quite vehemently on this visit. The bilateral meetings generated quite a collection of agreements, including the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on geospatial cooperation (BECA). Indian officials are pleased with the visit of the two powerful US Secretaries a week ahead of the presidential election to sign the BECA. They viewed it as a “demonstration to the world at large” of the importance that the U.S. attaches to India.
From New Delhi Pompeo shuttled to Colombo to “underscore the commitment of the United States to a partnership with a strong, sovereign Sri Lanka and to advance our common goals for a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” Once in Colombo, Secretary Pompeo added: “That’s quite a contrast to what China seeks. We see from bad deals, violations of sovereignty and lawlessness on land and sea that the Chinese Communist Party is a predator, and the United States comes in a different way. We come as a friend and as a partner.” This was after President Rajapaksa had made it clear that “he is not ready to compromise the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation in maintaining foreign relations whatever the circumstances may be,” according to the statement issued by the Presidential Media Division. The President had also indicated that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is “determined by several conditions including historical and cultural relations and development cooperation. He made it a point to note that “China assisted in the development of the country’s infrastructure since the end of the separatist war … (and) that Sri Lanka was not caught in a debt trap as a result.”
The two sets of statements capture the unique bind that Sri Lanka is in as China and the US make their manoeuvres for dominance in Asia. Add to that India’s sensitivity about its South Asian backyard. As well, there are internal factors contributing to Sri Lanka’s external dilemmas. The country is not a military power, except for internal put-downs. It carries nobody’s military bases, but endlessly labours under the illusion that every power in the world has a special strategic desire for Trincomalee. And it has serious preexisting conditions – fruitless historical preoccupations, highly poisoned internal ethnic politics, and a post-independence record of gross economic underachievement. All of which can be collectively overcome by a strong and rational leadership in government; in the absence of such leadership, Sri Lanka is left facing a set of mutually reinforcing dilemmas in its relationships with India, China, and America.
With India, Sri Lanka is constrained to have excellent government-to-government and elite-level relationships, while carefully nursing a deep seated political animosity towards that country. Political pandering to anti-Indian populism invariably carries the heavy economic price of missing out on business opportunities and bilateral trade advantages between two countries that share an enviably proximate market area. China has emerged as the lender of first resort, and increasingly so for Sri Lanka’s debt repayment cash-flow loans. All the while insisting that there is no debt trap and fancying that there is no limit to Chinese credit.
Long distance America is Sri Lanka’s biggest export market, as well as a major destination for its footloose families whose familial extensions can now be conveniently (and constitutionally) anchored in dual citizenships. Yet, thanks to the exportation of the island’s poisoned ethnic politics, anti-Americanism in Sri Lankan society has degenerated from the formerly stirring leftist rhetoric of anti-imperialism – to the now stifling paradox of hating anything that is official-American, while coveting everything otherwise-American for private progression.
This is a rough-sketch of the backdrop to Secretary Pompeo’s Sri Lankan visit. The missing elephant that cannot be fitted into this background is, ironically, as metaphorical proportions go, the novel coronavirus. It is the coronavirus that has become the perverse unifier of the world, and even giving the US and China another frontier to bicker about. China stands accused by the US as the originator of the virus, and Secretary Pompeo is one of the more ardent American accusers of China.
But no country in the world has so messed up its response to the virus as the United States of America, and it is the virus more than anything else that has transformed the routine quadrennial presidential election into a most consequential election in over hundred years. So, we return to the question that Modi or Rajapaksa may or may not have asked of Pompeo: “you think Trump will win?”
Who will win in America?
In a nutshell, Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, winning 30 States and 306 Electoral College votes against Hillary Clinton’s 20 States and 232 Electoral College (EC) votes. Trump passed the EC threshold of 270 votes and became President, even though he lost the popular vote to Clinton by nearly three million votes – 62.9 M to 65.8 M. Crucial to Trump’s victory were his unexpected wins by extremely narrow margins in three traditionally Democratic mid-western States, viz. Pennsylvania (20 EC votes), Michigan (16), and Wisconsin (10), yielding a total of 46 EC votes. If Hillary Clinton had won all three of them as she was predicted to, she would have won the presidency with 278 (232+46) EC votes to Trump’s 260 (306 minus 46) EC votes. But Hillary lost the three States, and Trump won the election. The rest has been four years of Trump presidency.
This time the Democratic Candidate and former (Obama’s) Vice President, Joe Biden, is healthily leading all the national opinion polls, just as Hillary Clinton was in 2016. But once bitten, the Democrats and polling pundits are twice shy about making bold predictions of Biden win this time. However, in 2016 while leading nationally, Mrs. Clinton’s leads over Trump in the three States she lost were within polling errors and she was vulnerable to a minor surge in Trump’s votes and a drop in hers. That is what happened eventually in 2016, whereas in this election, Joe Biden is showing healthy leads in the three States that he should win, and in half a dozen other States which also Trump won narrowly in 2016 and where he is vulnerable now. Trump cannot lose any of them.
Although Trump was not predicted to win last time, there were factors in the background that were able to coalesce and push him over the victory bar. This time the same factors are either absent, or have turned against him. His novelty to politics was a significant attraction among many voters in 2016. This time he is not new and he has to run against his record as President. The worst part of his record is the way he personally and by his leadership responded to Covid-19. Covid-19 became the biggest challenge of his presidency and even whatever public life he has had, and it exposed the worst in him. After he won the 2016 election, Trump never exercised moderation in anything to expand his electoral constituency beyond the narrow-minded and extreme political base that stands in unapologetic solidarity with him.
What is should be surprising, even shocking, is that for all his outrageous deviations from the basic norms of civilized society and politics, Trump should still command 30% to 40% support within the American population. That is what the opinion polls constantly tell us. Are the polls missing something – especially the voices of racially marginalized people who are either suppressed from or unmotivated towards voting in elections? At least that part of it seems to be changing in the current election. In 2016, 136 million people voted in the presidential election, which is 55% of America’s voting age population. This year, the advance voting – in person and by mail, reached 78 million, or 50% of the total 2016 vote a week before election day on November 3.
People have been waiting in long queues and over long hours in every City and in every part of America to cast their vote ahead of the election day. The long queues and long hours also tell the story of inadequate voting infrastructure – deliberately done to keep marginalized people from participating in the electoral process. Trump knew he was only going to win by keeping ordinary people as far away from voting as possible. In the end he may have provoked an unprecedented enthusiasm and surge in American voting. Is he going to win or lose? We will know before next Sunday.
Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation
By Jehan Perera
Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.
Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.
Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”
Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.
The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”
It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.
International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.
In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”
As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.
The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.
Album to celebrate 30 years
Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.
However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.
All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.
Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.
Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.
Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.
LET’S DO IT … in the new normal
The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)
Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.
But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.
Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.
Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.
However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.
And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.
Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.
“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”
The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.
“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”
Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.
In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.
Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.
Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!
Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.
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