For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
Feizal Samath, Foreign Correspondent
Sri Lanka’s frosty relations with the West over human rights abuses will continue under a new cabinet appointed last week and perhaps jeopardise long-term trade and investment interests, analysts say.
Wijedasa Rajapakse from the opposition United National Front said:“If at all, our relations with the European Union and the United States will get worse.”
The bulk of Sri Lanka’s main exports – garments and tea – go to Europe and the United States, who were also key funding partners of Sri Lanka’s development until the government shifted reliance in recent years to countries in the East.
As the West criticised Sri Lanka’s human rights record towards the end of the 20-year civil war last year, the government started making new friends. Colombo developed stronger relations with India, China, Pakistan, Iran and Libya – countries which helped supply weapons during the war against the separatist Tamils in the north – and funding for development projects.
The Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s strong bond of friendship with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which included exchange visits by both leaders in the past two years, has resulted in Iran inviting the Sri Lankan president to be the chairman of the G-15 group of developing nations at its summit in Tehran on May 17.
The local Island newspaper on Monday reported that Mr Rajapaksa will lead a high-level delegation to the summit and will also have separate talks with Mr Ahmadinejad on furthering trade and economic ties.
But Mr Rajapakse, a member of parliament, questioned Sri Lanka’s ties with these countries. “Although the government is bending towards Myanmar [also close to the government], Iran, Libya and China, what have we got from them? We don’t export much to these countries,” he said.
“The foreign policy of the government will jeopardise our relations with the West and Europe, where most of our exports go,”
President Rajapaksa’s ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance swept the parliamentary poll on April 8 and last week’s appointment of a new cabinet of ministers showed no sign the government intends to soften its stance in two key areas: foreign affairs and the media.
Jehan Perera, a political analyst who writes a column in the Island newspaper, said: “It is more about continuity than change.”
The new foreign minister, Gamini Lakshman Peiris, is known to articulate strongly a tough government stand against the West. When he was international trade minister he once threatened to sue the EU over its suspension of tax-free concessions for Sri Lankan goods.
The government also named Mervyn Silva as deputy minister of media, an appointment that shocked many journalists. The boisterous politician often clashed with the media. On one occasion he came close to physically hitting a reporter at a television station.
Sri Lanka is one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists, with several killed, disappeared or brutally assaulted by unknown persons during the tenure of the ruling UPFA, since 2004.
Mr Rajapakse, the opposition MP, said that some anti-West nationalists in the coalition government were also given powerful cabinet portfolios such as power and energy, housing and construction, and justice.
SI Keethaponcalan, the head of the political science department at Colombo University, said: “I don’t see Sri Lanka getting nervous [with the West]. If at all, it’s the West that would have to make the first move” towards reconciliation due to the economic opportunities in post-war Sri Lanka.
Soon after the ruling party’s election victory, Robert Blake, an US assistant secretary of state who has been a critic of the government’s human rights record, congratulated the president.
Geethanjana Gunawardene, the new deputy foreign minister, declined to comment on the country’s foreign policy, saying Mr Peiris, away attending a South Asian summit in Bhutan, would brief the media on the subject later.
Mr Rajapaksa, the president, who was also attending the Bhutan summit, met Mr Blake at the meeting. The government issued a photograph yesterday showing Mr Blake smiling while shaking hands with the president, but did not say what the two discussed.
Ever since the government stepped up fighting with Tamil rebels in 2007, reports of civilian casualties have drawn concern, particularly from human rights groups, the US and Europe. The government has strongly denied accusations that civilians were deliberately killed in the fighting, which ended in May 2009 when the rebels were defeated.