Sri Lanka’s identity in the world

The commentary in the local press over Sri Lanka’s defeat in the General assembly in its attempt to be re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council is proving revelatory in at least two ways. It is revealing of the spectrum of views on foreign policy and diplomacy in Sri Lankan society, and thereby simultaneously revelatory of our several collective selves, our several identities. It is a debate that is useful then, as a mirror --- but can be even more if it results in a serious discussion of the underlying core issues: who are we? What should we strive to be? Where are we, and what can we be in the world?  

In its broadest sense Sri Lankan attitudes to the world are divisible in two tendencies: internationalism and isolationism. Whatever their respective orientations, the internationalists recognize the impact of the world upon us, see the need to engage with the world and discern the possibility of an international role for the country. The isolationists, who are divisible into several subgroups, are characterized by a sense of cultural self sufficiency and often superiority. They underestimate our vulnerability to the outside world, ignore the value of that which we have gained and can gain from external influences and sources, and are uninterested in or incapable of playing a role in the world system.

The internationalists are divisible into the Westernisers, the Easternisers and the Non- aligned or Third Worldists. The Westernisers or the West-centric are overawed by the West, and see Sri Lanka’s role as being allied to the West. They see themselves as friends of, but in reality play the role of puppets (some colourful and prominent, some colourless) and servitors of the West. This tendency is generically identified with the UNP, with the prominent exception of the Premadasa period (the Mahathirian foreign policy of which as best set out by Bradman Weerakoon in an essay in the Economic Review).

This is somewhat unfair because periods of UNP rule had such exceptions as the Rubber-Rice Pact with China, and President Jayewardene’s relationship with Cuba during his chairmanship of NAM, but these exceptions notwithstanding, the general tendency under UNP administrations was that of a comprador, dependent or satellite foreign policy. From Sir John in Bandung and the "Chinese in Trinco" scare under Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, through President JRJ on the Falklands/Malvinas issue, to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on global trade talks, the Iraq war etc. The most intelligent and sophisticated ideologue or theorist of this tendency was the late Esmond Wickremesinghe.

What is not so clearly understood is that this tendency is not limited to periods of UNP rule or to the UNP end of the political spectrum, but can surface at other times and within others. Mervyn de Silva described post-Independence Ceylon’s pre-1956 foreign policy as "a piece of luggage left behind absent mindedly by a departing Whitehall civil servant". Former Ambassador and then Foreign Secretary Tissa Wijeratne went further and characterized those who sought to return to this foreign policy or a variant as those who were "not just unhappy that the UNP lost; they are unhappy that the British left!"

The Easternizers were those who saw our fate as linked to our continent, Asia. Some emphasized the region, South Asia, while others sought closer ties with East Asia. The latter, who sought ties with ASEAN were in one sense prescient, but were misplaced in that at the time the suggestion was made, the Vietnam War was on, the Indonesian coup and horrific massacres had taken place, and ASEAN was seen as a pro-US counterweight to China and North Vietnam. The JRJ- Esmond view in the 1960s, celebrated Suharto’s Indonesia as a success story and included contacts with Taiwan. The ASEAN centric view also tended to downplay Sri Lanka’s relationship with her immediate neighbours, hoping that the Far East connection could act as a counterpoise to neighbouring India.

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party for the most part, represented a Third position, that of Non alignment, though that policy perspective had to fight for its space in a two line struggle within its own ranks and more especially with an unsympathetic foreign policy establishment. After the death of Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike, the father of Sri Lanka’s independent foreign policy and posture in the world, the high point of an independent international perspective was the foreign policy plank of the United Front’s election manifesto of 1970 (on which Hector Abhayavardhana and Mervyn de Silva both worked).

The SLFP’s Non aligned foreign policy came under threat from three sources: the UNP and pro UNP elements within and outside the system; a fraction of the SLFP which had graduated or degenerated to comprador status and possessed comprador aspirations; and ironically the SLFP’s own domestic policies which in the sphere of language and education, combined over time to deprive Sri Lanka of the institutional bases and quality human resources needed for the formulation and conduct of a first rate international policy.

This last named factor of decline, intersecting with an understandable and legitimate backlash against postures of pro-western dependence, resulted in the periodic rise of isolationism, which at its worst, shades into xenophobia.

Sri Lankan foreign policy at its best is identified with Hamilton Shirley Amerasinghe, Dr. Gamini Corea, Neville Kanakaratne and of course, Lakshman Kadirgamar. The residues of that tradition are still available to society in Nihal Rodrigo, Dr Rohan Perera (the late Senator Reggie Perera’s son, who not only chairs the UN Ad Hoc Committee on terrorism but was elected to the International Law Conference with 135 votes.) and Kalyananda Godage.

It would be suicidal for Sri Lanka if society’s foreign relations perspectives polarized between West-centricists and the isolationists. The former openly support a version of R2P which is outside that endorsed by UN world leaders’ summit in 2005 and is but a It would be suicidal for Sri Lanka if society’s foreign relations perspectives polarized between West-centricists and the isolationists. The former openly support a version of R2P which is outside that endorsed by UN world leaders’ summit in 2005 and is but a disguise for "liberal humanitarian" interventionism along the lines of Clinton’s Kosovo war.  The latter are as myopic as Milosevic and Saddam.

An independent foreign policy is not a nativist one. Indeed it should be globalist, not in the economic sense beloved by today’s UNP, but in the dimensions of politics, security, culture, and consciousness.  Such a globalism could be defined by Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s phrase "tous azimuths", meaning all points or directions of the compass. It would be globalist in building cross–regional bridges to all areas ("discovering" Latin America), diversifying our dependence and giving us more options to engage in power balancing. It would be a globalism that is flexible but not free-floating, freighted with "Southernism" and "Easternism", meaning solid identification with the global South, the Non-aligned Movement and G 77, while hooking up with the rest of Asia, chiefly its drivers India and China.

Sri Lanka lost not one, but two important elections in recent years: to the UN Human Rights Council and earlier for the post of UN Secretary General. None of the criticisms made against the Government concerning the recent election are warranted in the case of the earlier defeat. It is symptomatic of the social and political biases of the Sri Lankan commentariat that the earlier defeat was not subject to scrutiny as the later one was. Any objective analysis would conclude that both defeats should be taken together, with the common fact of defeat underscored by the difference in personalities and styles. (An election in which we misread both India and China is truly revealing). What these twin defeats lay bare is the underlying inability to critically read international (and I might add regional) politics, and think through an appropriate strategy and policy. This is where on his 9th death anniversary this Sunday one feels the irreplaceable loss of Mervyn de Silva.   

(The opinions expressed in this article are the strictly personal views of the writer)

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