Welcome for Pope; Dalai Lama next

The Sunday Times | January 18, 2015

Coming as it did in the immediate aftermath of a hard-fought Presidential election, Pope Francis’ visit to Sri Lanka lost some of the media focus it would otherwise have merited.  The local Catholic Church, however, worked silently throughout – with the help of the previous administration, amidst widespread speculation that the Pope might actually cancel his trip. They pulled off a hugely successful visit. The relaxed, well organised, tumultuous welcome for their spiritual leader by the country’s Catholic population was testimony to this smoothly coordinated effort.

That the President who invited the Pope to this country was not able to receive His Holiness was a cruel fate that befell the former President, he being the third Head of Government to have invited a Pope to this country only to see his successor welcome him. Hopefully, it will not be a deterrent for a future invitation to a Pope.

In his brief tenure of the Papacy, Pope Francis’ unorthodox, liberal approach has revolutionised the Church. He has faced resistance from conservative bishops in his quest to modernise the way the Vatican comes to grip with today’s issues while maintaining cherished spiritual values.

The Holy See has been engaged in international relations since its inception, through quiet diplomacy. In modern history, it was the Church’s role during World War II when Pope Pius XII’s stance that the essence of statesmanship was compromised with Nazi Germany and him remaining aloof, insisting on the Church’s neutrality that attracted debate. It was a debate of whether evil should be tolerated to save the long-term interest of the Church. Later, the high point of the Church’s foreign policy was the Polish born Pope John Paul II’s intervention in breaking up the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Pope Francis is now credited with paving the way for re-establishing diplomatic links between the US and Cuba after 53 years.

In Sri Lanka, the Holy Father maintained political correctness insisting his was essentially a pastoral visit to canonise a Saint. It was only when he visited the hallowed northern shrine of Madhu that he touched on the touchy National Question and called on all Sri Lankans to reconcile in fellowship after the ‘recent tragic past’.
It was back on May 18 last year when the Pope’s visit was officially announced that we said in an editorial; “A state visit by the Pope to bless his followers, and the country which can do with some blessings is a welcome occasion…… In sharp contrast, however, is the stand taken by the Government of Sri Lanka on the Dalai Lama, the deposed Head of State and spiritual leader of Tibet and the ‘face of Buddhism’ to the world”.

We referred to His Holiness the Dalai Lama being denied a visa in the face of diplomatic pressure from China. First it was the military support we received, then it was the economic support. And what of the ‘double standards’ we complain other countries apply on Sri Lanka? With a change of political leadership, we would like to see if there is indeed an actual change of heart.

Good governance: Someone must do it
Government-forming or Cabinet-making is an arduous task especially when it comes to a Government of National Unity comprising several – in fact all -political parties barring the Old Left, the New Left and the northern Tamil Alliance. The latter two supported the new dispensation but it is somewhat fortunate that they opted out of the process without placing their own demands for helping contribute to the downfall of the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government.

The Rajapaksa Administration has collapsed like a deck of cards and the former President seems to have capitulated meekly. Like the Third Reich, it felt it would last a thousand years. Today, those ‘soldiers’ who served in it are not merely surrendering but deserting in droves, jumping to the side of the winners of the January 8 election, complaining they were merely carrying out orders of the ‘Fuhrer’, pledging allegiance to the victorious Allied Forces, some cringing, some crawling, some begging for mercy, some asking and some getting favours from the new leadership.

In this imperfect world of politics, there is already a sense of déjà vu; that nothing really has changed. Some of the new appointments to public office have already raised eyebrows. Some of the worms are coming out of the woodwork in a scramble for directorships on Government boards. Political IOUs are being encashed, big time. The city is full of wheeler-dealers from home and abroad seeking to cement new deals or ensure the status quo remains. An element of despair is in the air about investigations on past misdeeds and how they will really unfold. Apart from the hot air, have the accusers the expertise and the information wherewithal to successfully prosecute the allegations they make against the previous regime.

Very soon, those newly elected to hold political office are going to get embroiled in running their ministries and those charges they made while in Opposition are going to return to the back-burner. It will likely be ‘business as usual’ and most everything swept under the carpet.
The 100-day programme is running behind time, but it is unfair not to give the new Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe led National Democratic Front (NDF) Administration more time to put its house in order and get its act together. The pressures on the new Government are immense, and it’s not an easy job it has inherited – but then, someone’s got to do it.

Course correction with India
We have, only half-jokingly said before how whenever a national election is concluded, the winning candidate goes to the Dalada Maligawa to pay homage to the Buddha and the newly anointed Foreign Minister goes to New Delhi to pay pooja to our biggest neighbour.

The new Foreign Minister has lost no time in packing his bags and following in the illustrious footsteps of some of his predecessors. He flies over this weekend to meet Indian leaders. It is not a bad thing to do only if the new Minister has thoroughly briefed himself on the nuances of Indo-Lanka relations as they stand.

Course correction with India is a must. Misgivings about Sri Lanka’s heavy pro-China policy of yesteryear must be allayed, but there are a plethora of outstanding issues ranging from poaching to the UNHRC probe, to devolution, to the safety of Sri Lankans visiting India, to the FTA, for the new Minister to grapple with. He must, meanwhile, be wary of placing his signature to joint communiqués and MoUs that his ill-informed predecessor, acting on his own advice was too eager to sign to please his host.


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