Some Thought-Provoking Words from Colombo

Colombo-based journalist Namini Wijedasa has recently penned a clear, thought-provoking piece about the current situation in Sri Lanka and the performance of the new government. An essential point is that baselines matter. Expectations matter too. And skewed baselines and unrealistic, misguided or excessively modest expectations can be quite unhelpful.

Here's the start of Ms. Wijedasa's piece:

You know what, I'm not comfortable with the yardstick used by some to measure the performance of this government. I'm not happy with being asked to appreciate and be grateful for regaining some of my most basic rights, such as the freedom to express myself freely.

Here's the next paragraph:

I am entitled, as much as anyone is, to my rights. Just because one government deprived me of them does not mean another is granting me a favor by allowing me to exercise them. I was born with certain privileges and they are enshrined in the constitution. Having them honored is not a matter for praise. It's a question of prerogative.

Comparing the current administration to the previous regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ms. Wijedasa goes on:

For a while, yes, I was grateful. I enjoyed the freedom in the air, the feeling of not being afraid, of democracy-or some form of it-returning. But I believe this has an expiry date. I cannot be expected to indefinitely compare the present with the horrible immediate past and accept the morsels that are thrown at me.

Indeed, Sri Lanka has seen significant political changes since Mr. Rajapaksa lost the presidency in January 2015. However, there seems to be an increasingly common view that the new government isn't necessarily dramatically different than the previous administration. It's true that things are undoubtedly better on the rights front, but -- given the authoritarianism that prevailed on Mr. Rajapaksa's watch -- that's not saying all that much.

Whether one's taking stock of government performance in Colombo, Washington, Beijing or elsewhere, a key part of the process relates to what one uses as a reference point to measure performance. One can see this when the Obama administration, for example, makes assessments about Sri Lanka's new government.

Leaving aside the various factors behind Washington's current Sri Lanka policy, the U.S. could hardly be more supportive of the present administration. And a significant part of that is due to the recognition that the current coalition government, for all its flaws, is more democratic than the previous one -- that for Obama's team, 'marginally better' is good enough, at least in this instance.